Editorial: There must never be another Rochdale

State systems repeatedly failed young teenagers suffering appalling sexual abuse

If there is one thing more shocking than the conviction of a gang of men for the systematic sexual abuse of under-age girls, it is the negligence of public authorities in failing to prevent the crimes. There was plenty of opportunity. An inquiry into the grooming of young teenagers for sex in Rochdale has revealed systemic failures in the institutions of the state: social workers, police and officials from the Crown Prosecution Service all fell unforgivably short, over more than a decade. And there can only be fears of similar oversights in scores of other cases all across the country.

With most of the abusers in the Rochdale case of Pakistani heritage, and most of the victims white, the suggestion of a racial component has lurked behind much of the subsequent – justifiably appalled – commentary. The judge at the abusers' trial said that a factor in the men's treatment of their victims as "worthless and beyond any respect" was that the girls were not part of their community or religion. Local MPs in Rochdale and Rotherham have called for an inquiry into the cultural roots of the problem.

It would be as well to be cautious before drawing too general lessons. Analysis of more than 1,200 cases, across the country, by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre found that just 28 per cent of abusers were Asian. Although they may predominate in offences committed in the North and Midlands, in Devon the majority of abusers are white, in Bristol Afro-Caribbean and in London of many ethnicities.

In Rochdale, however, the racial dimension is difficult to avoid. Yet the issue was lamentably omitted from the report published yesterday by the council's Safeguarding Children Board. Thankfully, a number of Muslim community leaders have begun the task: cultural factors in these crimes must be confronted, not buried.

Where the report is unambiguous, though, is in the evidence that state services failed to intervene when they had information about exploitation. Indeed, yesterday's report highlights deficiencies in the training of frontline staff, alarming snobberies among police and prosecutors, and a heart-breaking missed opportunity to end the abuse four years ago.

The law is clear: sex with a girl who is under 16 is rape. Yet some social workers claimed that 13- to-15-year-olds were "making their own choices", and police and prosecutors decided that these young victims would not be found "credible" by a jury because of their "chaotic", "council estate" backgrounds. Such blaming of victims for their own abuse is truly sickening and can never be allowed to be repeated.

Significant change is now needed. Social workers must accept that children under 16 – whatever they say – cannot in law consent to sex; false consciousness is part of what grooming induces. But local authorities and police forces also need to adopt the system in place in Blackburn, which brings together a range of services – police, social workers, nurses, sexual health and drugs workers, as well as parents – to prevent, protect and prosecute.

Blackburn's Engage project carries out surveillance operations against adult suspects; it issues legal warning notices; it tours secondary schools. In four years, the scheme has rescued 80 children and has a 90 per cent conviction rate on child abduction, rape and sexual activity with minors.

Above all, the authorities need to listen more to victims and their parents. Great efforts have gone in to tackling paedophilia in recent years. The same level of focus must be applied in order to halt the grooming of young teenagers.