Paedophiles 'escaped justice' as victims let down by police

Katerina Vittozzi, North of England correspondent

A "network of paedophiles brazenly abusing young people" was allowed to escape justice and reoffend, Greater Manchester's mayor has said.

His comments come as a report criticised the "appalling failings" of Greater Manchester Police (GMP) during a 2004 police investigation into the sexual exploitation of children within the Manchester care system.

The Independent Assurance Review looked into Operation Augusta, which began after the death of 15-year-old Victoria Agoglia.

She suffered years of abuse before a 50-year-old man injected her with a lethal dose of heroin.

Andy Burnham ordered the review after a TV street grooming documentary "The Betrayed Girls" was broadcast in 2017.

It featured Maggie Oliver, a former GMP detective turned whistleblower who worked on Operation Augusta.

She said she believed there was evidence of misconduct in a public office, adding: "If the public can't trust the police to carry out their job, where does that leave us?

"They are very good at talking the talk: 'lessons have been learned', I'm telling you they have not, there are kids today who will tell you a different situation of what's going on now," she added.

Although Operation Augusta identified dozens of persons of interest, who may have been involved in a wider network of systematic child sexual exploitation, the Assurance Review found these leads were not fully investigated.

"Victoria's death exposed a network of paedophiles brazenly abusing young people - girls and boys - in care," added Mr Burnham.

"Each and every one of those abusers should have been brought to justice but, appallingly, most escaped and some were left to reoffend.

"In my view, it was absolutely essential, to fully face up to past failure, had there been failure - and of course, then to take the necessary action to support victims and prosecute offenders - and that is why the review was initiated."

Victoria's grandmother, Joan Agoglia, has paid tribute to her - describing the teenager as "such a lovely girl, a wonderful girl".

Responding to the report, she said: "I've been fighting for this all my life, it seems.

"And I've had the police down, lying to me and I've told them they were liars.

"I've had care workers come down and social workers come down, but where were they?

"Where were they when Victoria was being abused?

"She told me herself what these men had done to her.

"I used to give her a bath because she was so bruised. You couldn't believe it. She told me that she was being beaten.

"She did not deserve to die with nastiness and that's what happened."

Operation Augusta officers initially identified 97 persons of interest, predominantly Asian men working in the restaurant industry.

Up to 16 children were identified as potential victims, between the ages of 13 and 16.

But the review concluded that Operation Augusta shut "prematurely" in 2005, before the investigation could be properly completed.

Senior officers at GMP chose to under-resource the investigation - the report said, and a decision was made to close it down, then communicated to senior officers of Manchester City Council at a meeting later that day on 22 April, 2005.

Minutes of both meetings have disappeared, though one officer's note mentioned discussion of "press strategies" and several officials have chosen not to co-operate with the review.

Its authors were also refused access to case files relating to Victoria held by the Manchester City Coroner.

The report looked at a "sample" of cases detailing a series of allegations of rape and sexual abuse made by girls that were not followed up and with no further action taken by GMP or the council.

In each case the report concludes repeatedly with the same sentence: "We cannot offer any assurance that this was appropriately addressed by either GMP or Manchester City Council."

As a result, "very few of the relevant perpetrators were brought to justice and neither were their activities disrupted".

One suspect vehicle uncovered in the initial investigation was linked to a GMP officer, who was later dismissed, the report said.

Manchester's Deputy Mayor for Policing, Baroness Beverley Hughes said: "There can be no justifiable reason for the abandonment of Operation Augusta.

"This report lays bare the most profound abuse to which these young people were subjected.

"When Operation Augusta was abruptly curtailed, children were left unprotected and perpetrators free to continue their appalling activities."

"This is a depressingly familiar picture and has been seen in many other towns and cities across the country" - said authors Malcolm Newsam - a renowned child care expert, and Gary Ridgeway, a former detective superintendent with Cambridgeshire Police.

Greater Manchester Police said it accepts it "fell short of doing all they could" and has referred its conduct to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.

Assistant Chief Constable Mabs Hussain said: "Back in early 2000s, the priorities for forces across the UK were very different.

"This has completely changed and today safeguarding the vulnerable is our absolute priority."

Greater Manchester Police has set up a new investigation, Operation Green Jacket, in response to the findings.

The force has also contacted all but one of the victims named in the review.