ROTHERHAM, England (AP) — Rotherham is a working-class town that is remarkable in its ordinariness — a collection of charmless discount stores, betting shops and kebab counters, surrounded by sleepy residential streets lined with brick houses that have seen better days.
But below the drab surface, shock was evident Wednesday as the people of this northern English town learned that for 16 years, girls as young as 11 in their community had been subjected to sexual exploitation on a vast scale.
The number of victims — 1,400 — was terrifying enough for a community of just 250,000. But that wasn't all: despite repeated warnings over the years, only a handful of men have ever been convicted and an independent report found that local leaders had dismissed reports of child rape, exploitation and violence for years. Part of the reason, they said, was that they feared they would be branded as racist for pursuing the perpetrators — the majority of whom were men of Pakistani origin.
Yet, many say it's time for police and social workers to come up with a better response than to blame prickly race issues. Muhbeen Hussain, who founded the British Muslim Youth group, said the Pakistani community also needs to step up and face the problem.
"We need to acknowledge there was a large number of Pakistani men said to be involved. As a Pakistani Muslim I don't find anything within our religion to condone this," the 20-year-old said. "We need to reopen every case since the 1990s and investigate them. If it were any other type of crime the police would have acted."
Hussain argues the reason the problem has gone on for so long isn't about race, despite the authorities tiptoeing around the issue. What it is about, he argues, is a lack of accountability.
"Saying it's about race is just an excuse for the failure of the local council. Are they not going to arrest a drug dealer because the Muslims may be upset? It's ludicrous."
It's not the first time revelations of such horrific abuse have surfaced in Britain, but the report on Rotherham is unique in the sheer number of cases it unearthed, all within a single town. It stirred uncomfortable questions about the extent of hidden child sex crimes in poorer, job-deprived areas of the country, and the failure of British authorities in handling the problem.
Many of the girls were lured at the school gates by older, unrelated men who gained their favor by plying them with gifts and drugs. Some were trafficked to other towns for sex with multiple men, the report said.
Most of the victims in the older cases were described as "white British children," but the report said that more recently a greater number of cases were coming from the growing Pakistani, Kashmiri and Roma communities.
Britain prides itself on being a tolerant and integrated society — a mosaic of cultures and religions that generally sit side by side in apparent harmony. But the report, along with several prosecutions in other towns that also involve Pakistani gangs preying on young girls, have stripped away the veneer and exposed tensions festering beneath the surface.
Like many British towns, Rotherham has a diverse ethnic mix that sees white British people living alongside Pakistanis, Indians and newly arrived Polish residents. Far-right politicians have exploited the anti-immigrant worries of people in this island nation — and Northern England's tough economic times have fueled fears that the newcomers are taking away jobs and opportunities.
Like the nearby city of Sheffield, Rotherham used to be a steel production center. But industries have declined, and many streets are filled with derelict or shuttered shop fronts. Unemployment is above the national average. Prospects for young people are especially bleak.
Barkat Shad, who runs a family-owned textile shop, said community leaders don't know how to deal with child sex crimes and suggested they are complicit with the authorities in turning a blind eye.
"I don't want to offend anyone but it's a big circle — everyone's trying to cover each other. It's such a small town," he said. "Doesn't (the) police know? Don't the social workers know what's happening? They are all trying to protect themselves."
Report author Alexis Jay issued a damning condemnation of the lack of action by authorities between 1997 and 2013. Jay said Wednesday that it was simply not possible for the members of the police and the council to argue that they didn't know.
"Part of my remit was to identify what information was available to key people in positions of influence throughout that time," she said. "And there was certainly a very great deal of information available from an early stage."
Jay described three earlier reports, all of which had clear conclusions and details, such as the "names of potential perpetrators, car registration numbers, a very great deal of detail. Really by April 2005, it seemed to me that nobody could say 'I didn't know.'"
Calls grew for accountability. Britain's Labour Party and home secretary have called for the resignation of the police commissioner in the town, but he's refused to go.
Jay said Rotherham is not the only place struggling with this issue. She told the BBC that "demand for this kind of sexual activity with children is on the increase and that is validated across not just the UK but Europe and worldwide."
"We can't say that Rotherham is any better or worse than other places because the information simply doesn't exist at a national level to tell us that," she said.
But in Rotherham, where the shock is still sinking in, people are wondering about how things have changed, how times have changed. Claire Hizelhorst, a school dinner lady, said kids used to be able to play outside. Now, she'd be afraid to let them.
"How can anyone do this?" she said. "It's beyond me."