The front page of Wednesday's Times newspaper in London.
LONDON - The organized sexual exploitation of girls as young as 13, for which nine men were jailed in Britain Wednesday, is abuse in the most pernicious form imaginable.
Last year I spent six months investigating this crime for British television on Channel 4's investigative news show, Dispatches. It was one of the most grueling stories I have worked on in my 17 years as a journalist.
I met victims, their families, police investigators and people who helped the victims piece together their broken lives – as well as men with an inside knowledge about the underworld of ‘on-street grooming’.
I spent time in some of the areas where these crimes took place and listened in great detail to the nature of the crime and the impact it had on the young victims.
I was haunted by what I learned. During my time off or away from the story, I had vicious nightmares. Graphic accounts of rape and sexual abuse are not easy to put out of mind when heard in detail, especially not when the victims are barely pubescent. The men I met, who spoke to me anonymously about the motivations of the gangs who carry out these crimes, told me things that disgusted and enraged me. That was the impact on me, a professionally dispassionate reporter long accustomed to remaining cool no matter what the story. Imagine the impact on someone at the heart of this terrible crime.
The parents of the victims, whose destroyed lives were so obviously in pieces, were fighting feelings of guilt, sadness and anger. And the girls, who had faced rape and gang-rape at the hands of men much, much older than them, were some of the bravest I've ever met. I saw pictures of them before their ordeal; they could have been anyone's daughter, sister or niece. But the girls who sat before me were damaged, perhaps beyond repair, their innocence stolen.
What I now find more terrifying than the crime is the sheer scale of it: case after case is turning up in British courts. What we know about it is still emerging, and those who work with the girls say organized sex abuse is at least a generation old. That, too, makes me shudder: There are victims who never received the help they needed or the justice they should have had.
Newspaper front pages on Wednesday showed the faces of the men who will now spend years in prison, but behind other closed doors there are girls whose lives were brutally stolen from them and whose future will always be marked by the horrors they faced in their childhood.
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