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.
Mr Farnell said he was “shocked” by the findings and had “told the truth”.
The report said he “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.
Mr Farnell, who lost his council seat in 1992 but returned to the post in 2014, said: “There is clear evidence that I was not informed about Knowl View during my time as leader.”
He added that a two-year police investigation found “no evidence whatsoever” that he was involved in any cover-up.
Daniel Wolstencroft, from the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel for the inquiry, has called for action to be taken against Mr Farnell.
“In my own personal opinion he has got blood on his hands, [because] he denies knowing about the abuse,” he said.
“So for me he was complicit in the abuse. He needs holding to account.”
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report also 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.
Prof Alexis Jay, the chair of the inquiry, said she was “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,” she added.
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”.
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 was still in office when he gave evidence but later stood down.
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.
Mr Rowen said he “made a mistake” for which he was “terribly sorry” when he did not read a full report on Knowl View when he took over.
“Those young people should have had counselling, they should have had support and there should have been a full inquiry,” he said.
‘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.
“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 70 now 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 that what the victims said in the first instance and what I said in the first instance actually happened”.
Rochdale MP Tony Lloyd described the abuse as a “national tragedy” and called for “a national package of compensation” for victims of sexual abuse “across the piste”.
He added: “We can’t go back there but we do need to recognise that victims still are suffering these years on.”
Steve Rumbelow, chief executive of Rochdale Council, said the authority acknowledged its failures and the consequences for the children involved were “exceptionally serious”.
“The council has apologised and acknowledged that children were failed. I repeat that apology today and say again that we are truly sorry,” he said.
‘Truth and justice’
Greater Manchester Police said the force would consult with the inquiry to establish whether any criminal offences require investigation.
Assistant Chief Constable Debbie Ford said: “We have fully co-operated throughout and we acknowledge [the report’s] findings.
“This is a comprehensive report and we will now take time to fully understand the outcomes and any potential learnings.”
Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said: “This is a damning report, but one that at last opens up the possibility of truth and justice for those children who have suffered, and accountability for those who were in a position of responsibility but failed to act.
“Now it is essential that those who have been found responsible for failing in their public duties are held properly and fully to account.”