Rochdale grooming case 'failed to use witness evidence'

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Media captionMargaret Oliver: "Men are still walking around Rochdale that these girls named as offenders"

Men alleged to be part of a child-grooming ring in Rochdale were never brought to justice because the evidence of teenage victims was not pursued, according a former police officer.

Last May nine members of the ring were jailed for a total of 77 years.

Now a former officer has told the BBC more abusers "would be off the streets" if their girls' evidence had been used.

The Crown Prosecution Service said it focused its case on victims who would give the best evidence in court.

Tessa (not her real name) was 14 years old when men started grooming her for sex - luring her with free takeaway food and alcohol.

During a failed investigation into the abuse in 2008, she was arrested on suspicion of introducing friends to help the ring widen its network of girls - a claim she denies.

The investigation was eventually dropped and no charges were brought against her.

Three years later, after the case was resurrected, police documents seen by the the BBC's File on 4 programme said Tessa was "clearly a victim of sexual abuse and grooming".

After an initial period of mistrust, she co-operated with the new investigation, called Operation Span, identifying men, providing phone numbers and pointing out locations in flats, car parks and remote spots on the moors where she had been sexually abused.

But before the trial came to court, Tessa was dropped as a prosecution witness and she says she has never been told why.

"I thought I'd go to court and it would get the men off the street and be better for young girls out there now," she told the BBC.

Out of the 11 men who went to trial last year, nine were found guilty and two were acquitted.

But some of the men Tessa said had abused her were never arrested or charged.

She says she still sees some of them walking around Rochdale.

"There are still people out there not even arrested yet and I tried to explain that to a police officer, but they just don't listen," she said.

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Media captionSir Peter Fahy: "We have to, sadly in cases like these, make sure that the victim will be believed"

Former Det Con Margaret Oliver was the witness manager assigned to Tessa and another girl, Chelsea (not her real name).

She spent four months getting to know the girls, hearing their stories and encouraging them to give evidence to the police.

She was told the girls were vital for the police's investigation.

When she learned the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had decided not to call Tessa as a witness, she says she felt ashamed of her part in a process that won the girls' trust only to betray it.

Unlike Tessa, Chelsea was used as a witness in the trial, but only in relation to one charge against one man.

However, between them the two girls had described abuse by about 20 men.

Some of them were prosecuted and convicted but others were not.

"I feel that had the full facts been heard from the girls, we would have got heavier sentences and there wouldn't be offenders still walking the streets of Rochdale," Mrs Oliver said.

She resigned from her job because she says did not get the reassurances she wanted about how vulnerable witnesses would be treated in the future.

The CPS issued a statement saying it had focused on a selection of victims who would give the best evidence in court, and Tessa's "comments in relation to the other victims may have undermined the prosecution case against the defendants".

Error of judgement

The handling of this grooming case has had something of a troubled history.

The CPS apologised for failing to treat another victim as a credible witness in 2008.

The girl was judged to have "consented" to sex with the men and the authorities described it as a "lifestyle choice".

The CPS decided she would not make a credible witness.

Greater Manchester Police Chief Constable Sir Peter Fahy said that same error of judgement was not been repeated in Tessa's case.

"We do know these are really complex cases.

"There are really difficult factors that prosecutors have to juggle in what they are going to charge, how they are going to arrange it, the number of victims in a case where you actually draw a line about which victims are in a trial process and which are not.

Image caption Nine men were convicted of being part of the child sexual exploitation ring

"We knew that in a lot of these cases of these victims, that when you looked at it initially, obviously they had consented to the relationship.

"This is an absolutely common feature of these cases, but you have to be honest with victims and realistic that when you go into the court process these are exactly the sort of questions that will be asked by the defence and these are exactly the pressures young people will be put under."

Contrary to previous documents that said Tessa was a potentially vital witness and a victim, another police document seen by the BBC said she "did not see herself as a victim and had entered into 'relationships' of her own accord".

It asked: "How could we say all our witnesses were telling the truth yet they contradicted each other?"

For Mrs Oliver, these comments go to the heart of what she views as a problem with our legal system.

"The criminal justice system is intended not to select evidence - not to filter out things that don't fit the picture," she said.

"What I have seen is that particularly the evidence of Tessa has been shut out of this case. Why? I don't know."

In early March 2013, Keir Starmer, the head of the CPS in England and Wales, said he was unhappy with the way the police and prosecutors brought child abuse cases.

He announced there would be new guidelines and hundreds of cases that had failed to result in prosecutions would be re-examined.

Listen to the full report on File on 4 on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 26 March at 20:00 GMT and Sunday, 31 March at 17:00 GMT. Listen again via the Radio 4 website or the File on 4 download.

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