A former council leader’s claim he was unaware of child sex abuse in Rochdale “defies belief”, a report has found.
An independent inquiry said it was “shameful” that Richard Farnell “refused to accept responsibility for young lives blighted” in the town.
More than 40 men claimed they were abused at Cambridge House hostel, Knowl View school and other places between the early 1960s and mid-1990s.
The report said Mr Farnell “lied to the inquiry during his evidence”.
Pupils at Knowl View were also sexually exploited in the town centre, the bus station and at public toilets across the road from the borough council’s offices over a 20-year period.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report found “valuable opportunities were lost” in 1998 and 1999 to charge and prosecute the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith, who was accused of carrying out abuse in the town which he represented from 1972 to 1992.
There was a misguided “unwillingness to consider that someone in a position of public prominence might be capable of perpetrating sexual abuse”, it said.
Boys at Cambridge House boys hostel, where Smith was honorary secretary, said he spanked their bare bottoms and carried out intrusive medical examinations despite not being qualified to do so.
Before he died aged 82 in 2010 Smith, who acted as a governor for several Rochdale schools including Knowl View, was the subject of sex abuse accusations and investigations but never faced trial and received a knighthood in 1988.
The report, which was published on Thursday, also found authorities in Rochdale showed a “total lack of urgency” to address the sexual exploitation of boys at Knowl View, who were regarded as “authors of their own abuse”.
Prof Alexis Jay, the chair of the inquiry, said: “After listening to the evidence presented by a number of victims and survivors in Rochdale at the time, I am deeply disturbed at the evidence of extensive abuse and the institutional responses to that abuse.
“Many of those who testified to their abuse have never had the opportunity to seek justice through the courts. I hope that the public hearings and this report has offered them some measure of acknowledgement for their suffering.”
The panel said Mr Farnell came across as “bullish, self opinionated and unyielding” while giving evidence to the inquiry, which heard three weeks of evidence in October.
The Labour Party confirmed it had suspended the former leader, who lost his council seat in 1992 but returned as leader in 2014 and was still in office when he gave evidence.
Paul Rowen, who was leader of Rochdale Council between 1992-96, also “bore considerable responsibility” for the school and “turned a blind eye to the problems”, the report added.
‘I’m still feeling the pain and suffering’
One victim, speaking anonymously about allegations of abuse at the hands of Cyril Smith, said: “There was this man there who I can only describe as enormous.
“Very big. To me he looked massive because I was only small for my age.
“He asked me to take my pants down and turn around and face the wall. He started running his hands all over my body and he started bringing his hands up my side and my legs.
“I’m seventy now and I’m still feeling and I’m still feeling the pain and suffering as I did.”
The IICSA concluded that from 1989 onwards the police, Rochdale Council’s social services and education departments, as well as staff at Knowl View, knew youngsters were being subjected to sexual exploitation for money in public toilets.
It ruled there was no “deliberate cover-up” by the authorities involved but said instead there was a “careless and wholly inadequate response”.
Knowl View had failed in its basic function to keep children safe from harm, the report said, with both staff and older boys carrying out abuse.
Some boys were trafficked to other towns for the same purpose, and at one stage a convicted paedophile gained access to the school and attacked boys there over two nights.
Martin Digan, a former social worker who blew the whistle on the allegations in the 1990s, said the report provided “vindication”.
“[It is] vindication that what the victims said in the first instance and what I said in the first instance actually happened. It’s not allegations, it happened.
“It’s vindication for all of us in relation to what we said at the time.”