How lives of countless victims were left in ruins

Jonathan Brown reports on a circle of abuse that grew and grew to incorporate dozens of men who are still at large today

The true extent of the abuse suffered by vulnerable children at the hands of the Lancashire sex gang in the latter part of the last decade might never be known. At least 47 girls – some as young as 13, possibly even younger – endured years of humiliation, rape and violence as they were passed like objects among their assailants across the towns and cities of northern England. The exact number could be much higher.

Despite the convictions yesterday many more gang members – at least another 50 by some estimates – are still at large, living outwardly respectable family lives within their communities because the handful of victims that were prepared to come forward were unable to recognise them or their fellow conspirators refuse to reveal their identities.

Despite far-right claims to the contrary, the police, social services and the Crown Prosecution Service do not link the offences to the ethnicity of the convicted men – eight of whom were of Pakistani origin, while the ninth was an asylum seeker from Afghanistan. Instead agencies said it was a matter of criminal circumstance.

Greater Manchester Police said the common ethnicity of the men was incidental to the vulnerability of the all-white victims who lived chaotic and unsupervised lives.

The girls were drawn into the gang's orbit while walking the streets of Heywood at night on the look out for fast food, drink, drugs and companionship. Naive and easily led, they were quickly flattered by the much older men who made them feel pretty and important.

"At first I thought it were great because nothing had happened, like nothing sexual. I just thought 'I can get all this stuff for free'," explained one victim.

But as the exploitation grew and an ever wider circle of men were drawn into the ring, the victim's lives were systematically destroyed.

"They ripped away all my dignity and all my last bit of self-esteem and by the end of it I had no emotion whatsoever because I was used to being used and abused daily," she added.

The perpetrators were all employed in Greater Manchester's night-time economy. They lived and worked together as taxi drivers and at takeaways where they formed strong bonds of trust.

Some had links dating back to families living in villages in Pakistan. Many of their offences took place in front of each other on dirty mattresses in flats above shops, in cars or at houses across the M62 corridor.

The 59-year-old man, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was at the head of the ring and forged the initial link with the girls.

He had been having an illegal sexual relationship with another teenager known to the victims as the Honey Monster who introduced her friends and even her own sister to the men.

His role as ringleader was eventually taken over by taxi driver Abdul Aziz, nicknamed "the Master", when police were first alerted to the abuse in August 2008 after one of the victims violently confronted her abusers over the counter of the Heywood takeaway where he worked.

The slight, troubled teenager later complained to officers that she had been serially abused. But despite hours of harrowing video testimony in which she tearfully relived her ordeal and the discovery of DNA evidence, she was simply not believed.

A lawyer in the Crown Prosecution Service felt that a jury would not convict based on the credibility of her evidence. The lawyer has now been moved but not disciplined.

The CPS has continued to insist that the original decision was a "judgment call" – albeit in hindsight the wrong one. However, the police, whose initial investigation into the girl's claims is currently the subject of an internal investigation overseen by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, did not appeal against the decision.

Instead, the authorities blamed a basic failure in the understanding of child sexual exploitation at the time. Cheryl Eastwood, executive director for children, schools and families at Rochdale Borough Council said: "The way all safeguarding partner agencies, police, health and social care respond to cases of child sexual exploitation has changed almost beyond recognition since 2008. At that time there was relatively little known about sexual exploitation in this context. There was very little research and no statutory guidance to assist practitioners and guide interventions," she said.

One of the core difficulties faced by investigators was that many of the victims refused to believe they were being abused. At least one of the five victims in court continued to insist the men did nothing wrong considering herself to be in a legitimate relationship with her "boyfriend".

Meanwhile, the men, most of whom were married and had children of their own, claimed they believed the girls were above the age of consent or that they were working as prostitutes.

Rochdale Borough Council admitted that all five of the victims were known to social services although none were considered to be at risk of sexual exploitation. One of the victims was living in a care home at the time she was being abused. During the trial it emerged that she had twice pleaded with care workers to help her after being repeatedly assaulted.

On one occasion she was raped in turn by three men as she was being sick from drinking alcohol. On another she was slapped and had her hair pulled. In a note written in February 2010 she described how Asians were "picking her up, having sex with her and giving her money not to say anything".

She said she had been asking to be moved since the previous month.

A second letter in March described how she was getting drunk and smoking cannabis and wanted to stop. She was moved out of the area the following month.

The highly unusual decision to reopen the case was eventually taken by Nazir Afzal when he was appointed the North West's chief prosecutor.

A highly experienced sexual offences prosecutor who has taken on community interests to oppose forced marriage and honour crime, he said he "did not think twice" about restarting proceedings and charging two men based on the existing evidence from the earlier investigation.