By Jack Stubbs
ROTHERHAM, England, Sept 2 (Reuters) - Swapping cigarettes and chewing gum, the teenage girls outside Rotherham's Centenary Indoor Market are not engrossed in the conversations students should be having on the first day of term.
Instead of timetables and summer gossip, theirs is a new school year dominated by revelations that as many as 1,400 children in this northern English town were sexually abused by gangs of predominantly Asian men over a 16-year period.
An independent report last week exposed the scale and graphic nature of the crimes and raised difficult questions about whether timidity about confronting the racial aspects of the abuse had prompted authorities to turn a blind eye.
Some of the victims, mainly white girls in social care homes, were as young as 11 and were plied with drugs and alcohol before being trafficked to cities across northern England and gang-raped by groups of men, predominately of Pakistani heritage, the report said.
Those who tried to speak out were threatened with guns and made to watch brutal gang rapes. Their abusers said they would be next if they told anyone. One girl was doused with petrol, her rapist threatening to set her alight.
The report added that senior managers in social care "underplayed" the problem while police regarded many victims with contempt.
"The council motto is 'Where everybody matters,'" one girl outside the market, a 16-year-old sports and public services student who didn't want to be named, told Reuters.
"But them there girls didn't matter. People like us, we don't matter."
On a newsstand across the street, the front page of the Rother Advertiser newspaper calls for the resignation of council members and police officials.
"Rotherham is in disgrace," the editor writes in his paper's leading article. "It is this week the most shameful town in Britain."
Rotherham council leader, Roger Stone, resigned following the report's publication and South Yorkshire Police have commissioned an independent investigation into their handling of the scandal.
Last week's report said misplaced racial sensitivities perpetuated the failure by police and local authorities to investigate the crimes over the last 12 years.
"Several councilors interviewed believed that by opening up these issues they could be 'giving oxygen' to racist perspectives that might in turn attract extremist political groups and threaten community cohesion," wrote the report's author, Professor Alexis Jay.
Allen Cowles, a Rotherham councilor for Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which campaigns against what it calls "open door" immigration, said local politicians were too scared of losing votes from Rotherham's large Muslim population to speak up about the allegations, a view reiterated in much of the British press.
"Quite clearly, an excessive adherence to political correctness led to a failure to do or say the right thing for fear of being called 'racist,'" he said. "This hindered the investigation of these awful crimes from day one."
But others say concerns over racism are a weak excuse put forward by those who failed to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society.
On a residential street in Rotherham's Eastwood estate, groups of Pakistani men gather outside the Jamia Masjid Abu Bakar mosque, to talk and make plans before attending afternoon prayers. Their voices drown out the Adhan Muslim call to prayer played on speakers through an open window.
"For all of these wicked things we have seen, I blame the police and council entirely," said Mahir, a 63-year-old retired chemical salesmen. "They're not scared of being called racists when they're out arresting Pakistani drug dealers - then they are doing their job."
Others nod in agreement. "Now they are scared," says one man. "Scared that nothing was done. The whole world knows what happened here in Rotherham."
POVERTY AND VULNERABLE PEOPLE
A small town just outside the city of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, Rotherham was once known to the world as a prospering hub of Britain's steel and coal industries.
Now it typifies the poverty of post-industrial northern Britain. The site of regional fairs and trade markets since 1208, the town's medieval market square is today lined with bookmakers, "pound shop" bargain stores and empty retail spaces.
The founder of the British Muslim Youth community group, Muhbeen Hussain, said it was poverty and the exploitation of vulnerable people, not racial sensitivities, which led to the widespread sexual abuse of teenage girls in his home town.
"What happened is to do with poverty, social class and vulnerable people," said the 20-year-old history and politics student who has been interviewed by media around the world since holding a news conference saying the scandal was not a racial problem and calling for the convictions of those accused.
"The reason the council didn't take notice is because these children are from the most deprived backgrounds out there, not because they were white or the criminals were Muslim.
"They thought 'it's normal for these children to do these kind of things, they're just those kind of girls.'"
Hussain's raised voice attracts looks from other customers at the cafe on Rotherham's All Saints Square.
Joining the conversation from a neighboring table, Isobel Greyling, a teacher from the nearby town of Worksop, said the debate about ethnic sensitivities has been driven by a desire to avoid uncomfortable truths.
"People are trying to make this about race and community segregation because that's a conversation we're used to having," she said.
"It's not nice, but it's easier than facing up to the true horror - which is that these despicable things happened, on our doorstep, and nobody stopped them."
Outside, children shout, playing in the fountain, and a young boy is scolded by his teenage mother. College students sit on benches discussing the events of the first day of term.
Hussain addresses the assembled crowd of older ladies who have stopped eavesdropping and are now openly listening to him speak. He says the debates about community and meaningful change are yet to come and the main focus is achieving convictions and the resignations of those responsible for the abuse.
"When you are falling down a cliff, the first thing you do is you stop. Then you think 'how did I slip?'" he says, jabbing his forefinger into the table.
"Rotherham is falling down Mount Everest at the moment. Rotherham is falling down the biggest mountain there ever was, and Rotherham has to stop itself first." (Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Editing by Giles Elgood)