Sex grooming cases spark racial tensions
She was lonely in the way only an adolescent girl can be: No friends, no boyfriend, not much of a relationship with her parents. So she felt special when a man decades older paid attention to her, bought her trinkets, gave her free booze.
Then he took her to a dingy room above a kebab shop and said she had to give something back in return. His demands grew: Not just sex with him, but with his friends. It went on for years, until police charged nine men with running a sex ring with underage girls.
The story of Girl A, as she became known in court, is tragic by any measure, but it has also become explosive. Because there is no getting around it: The girls are white, and the men who used them as sex toys are Asian Muslims, mostly Pakistanis raised in Britain. And it's not just Rochdale -- roughly a dozen other cases of Asian Muslim men accused of grooming young white girls for sex are slowly moving to trial across northern England, involving up to several hundred girls in all.
In today's Britain, which prides itself on being a tolerant and integrated society, the case has stripped away the skin to expose the racial sores festering beneath. It is also feeding an already raw anger against the country's Asian Muslim minority, in a movement led by far right groups at a time when the economy is stalled.
"You can't get away from the race element," says prosecutor Nazir Afzal, a British Muslim with family roots in Pakistan who ended several years of official indifference to the girls' plight and finally brought the perpetrators to trial. "It's the elephant in the room."
From a distance, Rochdale looks like a picture-perfect English city, with the 800-year-old Parish Church of St. Chad perched high above the streets, and the Victorian Gothic Town Hall just below, its clock tower resembling the one that houses London's Big Ben.
Up close the flaws become clear. Like missing teeth in an otherwise sparkling smile, a fair number of downtown shops are boarded up, or have been turned into pawn shops or dueling "pound shops" where almost all items cost 1 pound ($1.60) or less.
The Pakistani community started to grow half a century ago, when the town's cottons mills were flourishing. The newcomers, most of them from poor rural villages, were drawn by the promise of steady jobs and a chance to educate their children in English schools.