Three Girls: the real-life story of Rochdale’s sexual abuse scandal

Maxine Peake and Lesley Sharp star in the three-part series following the story of three victims groomed and abused by a sex ring

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Three Girls – a harrowing new drama from the BBC – brings to the screen the real-life child sex abuse ring in Rochdale and the subsequent investigation which led to the conviction of nine men in 2012.

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The three-part series is built around a trio of girls – Holly, Amber and Ruby – who were befriended, groomed and abused by a gang of mostly Pakistani men in Rochdale in Greater Manchester.

But what really happened? And how accurate is the three-part series?

Were Holly, Amber, Ruby and Sara real? 

Holly, Amber and Ruby are three real-life victims, with changed names, chosen by writer Nicole Taylor to be the focus of the drama. In total, 47 young girls were interviewed as potential victims of the gang, which operated in the Heywood area of Rochdale. None can be named unless they waive the right to anonymity granted to all sexual abuse victims.

Sara Rowbotham was indeed employed as Rochdale’s crisis intervention team coordinator between 2003 and 2014. She played an instrumental role in gathering information on the abuse ring, thanks to her relationship with many of the victims. She writes in the Guardian: “I had a perfect view of how this criminal activity was beginning to emerge from the shadows.”

How accurate is the drama?

Three Girls has been made with the full cooperation of the victims and their families and lists Rowbotham (played by Maxine Peake in the drama) as a consultant in its credits.

Writer Nicole Taylor also spoke to Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who broke the first story on the scandal, and the court case’s chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal.

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When did the attacks carried out by the Rochdale sex ring take place? 

The case wasn’t brought to trial until 2012 but the offences that were investigated took place between 2008 and 2009.

Why was there such a gap between the offences and the trial?

A large part of the media storm that erupted in 2011, when the case hit the press, was down to the lapse in time between the crimes and the decision by the police to press charges.

Back in 2008, a victim known as Girl A (whose story is similar to Holly’s) made allegations of abuse after she was arrested for criminal damage. Her alleged abusers were arrested and questioned but the CPS decided not to prosecute in July 2009, ostensibly because they did not believe Girl A would be a credible witness. She later became a pivotal witness in the 2012 trial that led to the nine convictions.

It was journalist Andrew Norfolk, working as a reporter for The Times, who – after noticing a wider pattern of sexual offending in the Rotherham area – published a story in the newspaper in 2011 which put the offences in the public eye. His extensive reporting led to an independent enquiry, overseen by Professor Alexis Jay, which found that 1,400 children were sexually exploited in Rotherham over a 16-year period.

Rochdale’s police force and social workers were subsequently accused of failing to act despite compelling evidence of a multitude of sexual crimes committed against children. It has been suggested that they chose not to investigate for fear they would be accused of racism, given that the majority of the perpetrators were of Pakistani origin.

Norfolk told Radio Times he had initially shied away from writing about the Pakistani grooming gangs because “I didn’t know how to tell it without saliva dribbling down [BNP leader] Nick Griffin’s chin.”

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What happened to the abusers? 

Of the abusers shown in the drama, the most prominent was Daddy (played by Simon Nagra). Real-name Shabir Ahmed, the gang’s ringleader went by the nickname “Daddy” in real life and was sentenced to 19 years in prison in 2012. The then-59-year-old received an extra 22-year custodial term in the same year, this time for repeatedly raping a girl, but the judge ordered the two sentences to be served concurrently.

Ahmed was one of nine men, most of Pakistani origin, convicted at Liverpool Crown Court, for sexual offences committed against young girls from Rochdale. The other offenders were: Abdul Aziz, Abdul Rauf, Mohammed Sajid, Adil Khan, Abdul Qayyum, Mohammed Amin, Hamid Safi and Kabeer Hassan. A further offender, Mohammed Shazad, absconded while on bail after his first arrest.

What was the fallout to the scandal?

Greater Manchester police issued an apology to victims of the Rochdale child sex abuse scandal in 2015. Following an internal review, looking at the conduct of 13 officers between 2008 and 2010, assistant chief constable Dawn Copley said “mistakes were made and victims let down” but the force chose not to discipline a single officer.

Detective Margaret Oliver (played in the drama by Lesley Sharp) told Radio 4’s Today that the review “doesn’t go nearly far enough”.

Oliver – who resigned from the police force in October 2012 – is still in touch with many of the victims and recently told the Guardian: “I’m speaking to kids who are telling me that even to this day they are seeing offenders that they’ve named, walking around Rochdale. Somebody saw one in London, another person told me that one has moved around the corner from her.

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“That’s why I’m saying things haven’t changed, because those men have been named by those girls [to the police…] and I know that they’re still out there walking around.”