The Cambridge House, Knowl View and Rochdale investigation exposed how child sexual abuse targeting the most vulnerable of children was allowed to persist for a disturbing length of time. During three weeks of public hearings in 2017, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse heard of the vulnerability of the children at the council-run Knowl View School and of child sexual abuse spanning a period of 25 years. It found staff complacent and arguably complicit.
The abuse was widespread and sexual exploitation of boys was also happening in the town centre, the bus station and the Smith Street public toilets which were across the road from the council’s offices. The Inquiry’s report catalogues the total lack of urgency on the part of the authorities to treat the matters as serious sexual assaults; boys as young as 11 were not regarded by those in authority as victims, but as authors of their own abuse.
The Inquiry also heard evidence about sexual abuse at Cambridge House Boys’ Hostel and outlines how opportunities to prosecute former Rochdale MP Cyril Smith (who was Honorary Secretary of Cambridge Boys’ Hostel) was lost, in relation to allegations of child sexual abuse.
Evidence was also heard from Richard Farnell, who was Leader of Rochdale Council from 1986 until 1992 and then from 2014 until his resignation in December 2017. The report is clear that the Inquiry did not believe his evidence. His refusal to accept responsibility for events is described by the Inquiry as ‘shameful’.
Finally, the Inquiry heard evidence about sexual abuse at other institutions in Rochdale. This included the convictions of four men – Thomas Mann, Dennis Leckey, Anthony Andrews and Raymond Cullens – on numerous charges of sexual abuse at schools and children’s homes. This demonstrated some capacity and willingness from the police and the Council to confronting allegations of child sexual abuse and taking action.
This investigation highlighted the shocking extent to which this local authority and those supposed to be caring for children would disregard their responsibility to keep them safe. It is deeply disturbing that such pervasive child sexual abuse was allowed to continue for such a long time and in near plain sight. The Rochdale council leader Richard Farnell is believed to have lied to the Inquiry, continuing the theme of leaders failing to take responsibility. The report also found there was an ‘unwillingness at the highest level’ to even recognise that former Rochdale MP Cyril Smith was capable of carrying out child sexual abuse.
What’s clear from this investigation is that children are let down when leaders responsible for the care of children do not take that responsibility seriously. The Inquiry made no specific recommendations as a result of this investigation, but did however expect the local authority and other public bodies to reflect on the report, and make such changes to practices that are necessary to protect children in the future.
John O’Brien is Secretary to the Inquiry at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.