- ‘Valuable opportunity’ to prosecute Cyril Smith in 1999 was lost
- Ex-council leader Richard Farnell lied during his evidence last October
- No ‘deliberate cover-up’
- Farnell immediately suspended by Labour Party
- Rochdale Council: ‘We are truly sorry’
- Farnell insists: ‘I told the truth’
An inquiry into historic allegations of child sexual abuse and exploitation in Rochdale has revealed the authorities showed a “total lack of urgency” to address the matter.
A report of the findings, published on Thursday, described how boys at a council-run school were regarded as “authors of their own abuse.”
Pupils at now-closed Knowl View residential school were also sexually exploited in the town centre, the bus station and at public toilets across the road from the borough council’s offices over a 20-year period.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) panel also found a “valuable opportunity” was missed to prosecute the town’s former Liberal MP, Cyril Smith, during his lifetime in the late 1990s and that ex-council leader Richard Farnell lied during his evidence last October.
The inquiry’s report said: “We concluded that Richard Farnell who was leader of Rochdale Council from 1986 until 1992, lied to the inquiry in the course of his evidence.”
The Labour Party responded on Thursday by immediately suspending Farnell, with a spokesman stating it: “Condemns the abuse of children and any attempts to cover up these heinous acts.”
The IICSA concluded that from 1989 onwards the police, Rochdale Council’s social services and education departments, as well as staff at Knowl View, knew youngsters were being subjected to sexual exploitation for money in public toilets.
The panel found: “The records of individual children convey a total lack of urgency on the part of the relevant authorities to address the problem and treat the matters involved for what they were – serious sexual assaults.
“This remained the case even in the face of clear evidence of the risks to children’s health.
“The file of one young boy at Knowl View recorded that he had contracted hepatitis through ‘rent boy’ activities.
“We concluded that no-one in authority viewed child sexual exploitation as an urgent child protection issue. Rather, boys as young as 11 were not seen as victims but as authors of their own abuse.”
It ruled there was no “deliberate cover-up” by the authorities involved but said instead there was a “careless and wholly inadequate response”.
The panel said the police did not turn a blind eye as records suggested they did not obtain sufficient evidence to prosecute, although they did not provide “any satisfactory answer” as to why no-one appeared to have been charged with abusing Knowl View boys in the town centre despite some disclosures from the boys and police knowing the names of some men.
IICSA also looked into the involvement of the late politician Smith at Cambridge House boys’ hostel in Rochdale and found a “valuable opportunity” to prosecute him in 1999 was lost.
Smith, a prominent councillor before he represented the town in Parliament from 1972 to 1992, acted as a governor for several Rochdale schools, including Knowl View.
Before he died aged 82 in 2010 he was the subject of sex abuse accusations and investigations but never faced trial and received a knighthood in 1988.
A Lancashire Police investigation into the 29-stone MP concluded in 1970 – the year he first ran for public office – that he was hiding behind a “veneer of respectability” and had used his “unique position” to target eight boys at Cambridge House during the 1960s.
The boys said Smith, the hostel’s honorary secretary, spanked their bare bottoms and carried out intrusive medical examinations despite not being qualified to do so.
But the then director of public prosecutions (DPP), Sir Norman Skelhorn, chose not to charge him.
From 1997 onwards, Greater Manchester Police investigated allegations of physical and sexual abuse in residential homes, with the Lancashire Police file concerning Smith and a further witness statement submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service in 1998. Two additional statements were submitted in 1999.
The IICSA panel said the CPS branch crown prosecutor advised Smith should not be charged despite coming to the view there was a “realistic prospect of conviction”.
Rochdale Borough Council response:
Steve Rumbelow, chief executive of Rochdale Borough Council, said: “We acknowledge that, certainly in the case of Knowl View School, there were significant failures of leadership and management, and a failure to investigate concerns in order to protect children.
“While the inquiry found no evidence of cover-ups or political pacts, it is clear from its report that council officers and school staff failed in their most basic duty of care towards children.
“Although the failure to understand the risks at the time was not unique to Rochdale, the consequences of the failures for the children involved were exceptionally serious.
“The council has apologised and acknowledged that children were failed. I repeat that apology today and say again that we are truly sorry.”
The panel said: “His review of that advice in 1999 did not consider that those new complaints were capable of lending further support to the case. A valuable opportunity was, therefore, lost to prosecute Smith during his lifetime, and for the complainants to seek justice.”
IICSA also addressed the evidence given last year by Farnell. The inquiry heard that a paedophile had been admitted to Knowl View in September 1990, where he had sexually abused at least one boy but Farnell insisted the information was not passed on to him.
Farnell said he was also unaware of a 1991 report submitted by a health authority worker which detailed claims that boys at Knowl View as young as eight were being sexually targeted by men from as far afield as Sheffield.
The panel concluded Farnell lied to the inquiry and that it “defies belief” he was unaware of the events involving Knowl View.
It said: “Regarding Mr Farnell’s final statements at the hearing, it was shameful that he refused to accept any personal responsibility for the young lives blighted by what happened at Knowl View while he was leader.
“I told the truth”
“Instead he laid all blame for what occurred at the door of the senior officials in education and in social services.”
Farnell has insisted he told the truth. In a statement issued by email, he said: “I told the truth. There is clear evidence that I was not informed about Knowl View during my time as leader.
“The three most senior officers of the council responsible for informing and advising the leader of the council – the chief executive, the director of education and the director of social services – all said in evidence they did not tell me about Knowl View.
“A two-year police investigation found no evidence whatsoever that I was involved in a cover-up of events at Knowl View.”
Professor Alexis Jay, chair of the inquiry, said: “After listening to the evidence presented by a number of victims and survivors in Rochdale at the time, I am deeply disturbed at the evidence of extensive abuse and the institutional responses to that abuse.
“Many of those who testified to their abuse have never had the opportunity to seek justice through the courts.
“I hope that the public hearings and this report has offered them some measure of acknowledgement for their suffering.”
It is understood Greater Manchester Police will liaise with the inquiry in relation to any possible offences.
Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer from Slater and Gordon, which represents eight alleged victims, added: “This report is a devastating indictment of decades of institutional failures to protect children from abuse and sexual exploitation.
“Our clients have waited decades for the truth to come out and this report confirms everything they have been saying for years.
“The report confirms what we said last October. Richard Farnell lied to the inquiry and it is now very clear that the Labour Party should have acted much more quickly to remove him as leader. He is unfit to be in public life.
“The report also confirms that Cyril Smith should have been prosecuted for sex offences and that the honours committee failed his alleged victims in recommending a knighthood.
“In the light of the report, Smith should now be stripped of his knighthood so that those he abused at least have the comfort of knowing that his depravity is now recognised by the establishment which protected him for so many years.”
One of Smith’s alleged victims said: “All this could have been stopped and the lives that were destroyed by this could have been saved. That’s unforgivable and those responsible should hang their heads in shame.”