Exterior view of the Rotherham Law Courts in Rotherham, Yorkshire, Britain. An inquiry report released 26 August claims that at least 1,400 children were sexually exploited in the city between 1997 and 2013. (Will Oliver/EPA)

FIVE MEN from the northern English town of Rotherham were jailed in November 2010 for sexual offenses against underage girls. There was suspicion that the problem of sexual exploitation of children was more widespread, but the true scale and horror of the crimes became clear only recently, with shocking findings from an independent investigation that hundreds of girls were vilely abused over 16 years. Also appalling is how local authorities tolerated, even enabled, the unspeakable acts.

Sorting out why officials closed their eyes or looked the other way as an estimated 1,400 young girls were raped and brutally exploited from 1997 to 2013 will require Rotherham and the rest of Britain to come to grips with uncomfortable questions about race, class and gender.

“It is hard to describe the appalling nature of the abuse that child victims suffered. They were raped by multiple perpetrators, trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England, abducted, beaten, and intimidated,” wrote Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work who was commissioned to conduct an independent inquiry after reports by the Times of London. She described a process that targeted girls from vulnerable or working-class families. Girls as young as 11 were raped by large numbers of men. Some children were doused with gasoline and threatened with being set alight if they told anyone.

The people who should have protected them — police, social workers, council officials — did nothing, even when complaints were brought to them. “Nobody can pretend they didn’t know,” Ms. Jay told the New York Times. Among the disturbing explanations for this complicit indifference is the fear of appearing insensitive or even racist since the perpetrators were members of the local Pakistani community. “There was a culture of not wanting to rock the multicultural community boat,” said one Rotherham official.

The working-class background of many of the victims also fed the prejudice of authorities, who treated them with what Ms. Jay characterized as “utter contempt.” Rapes were dismissed as consensual sex, even though the girls were underage and incapable of consent. In some cases victims were arrested for drunkenness or disorderly behavior by police who never probed why pre-teenage girls were in apartments with older men they did not know.

Before the Rotherham report was released, concern about a series of high-profile British abuse cases had prompted Prime Minister David Cameron to announce a national inquiry into how the country’s public and private institutions have handled such incidents. The revelations from Rotherham and the fear that its experiences are not unique give new urgency to that endeavor, and Americans should not watch with indifference: When it comes to treating victims of sex crimes as criminals, Britain is hardly alone.