A senior police officer made the admission after a serious case review found a catalogue of mistakes by police, social services and other agencies left the gang free to continue abusing the vulnerable West Yorkshire schoolgirl.
The girl, identified only as Autumn, was aged 13 and 14 when she was repeatedly raped, sexually abused and passed around by the men in 2011 and 2012.
In one sustained attack she was raped by five of them in succession.
Last February, 12 men were jailed for a total of 130 years. Eleven were sentenced for rape and a twelfth was jailed for sexual activity with a child under 16.
The serious case review published by Bradford Safeguarding Children Board criticised police for “not prioritising intervention in this type of crime”, and for a belief that “children involved in this kind of harm were actively consenting and choosing to become involved”.
On one occasion, police treated information that Autumn had performed a sex act on an Asian man in a park as a case of prostitution, the review’s authors say.
Autumn was recorded as a missing person a total of 70 times between March 2010 and May 2012, but police failed to make the link to child sexual exploitation.
The report states that Autumn continued to suffer for a year after her first disclosure of rape was made to three agencies in May 2011.
Detective Superintendent Nick Wallen, who was part of the serious case review panel, said: “We as a force apologise to this young lady and as a senior officer, who has been part of the review into this, I apologise personally to her.”
Det Supt Wallen said police did take child sexual exploitation seriously at the time, but added: “There was a lack of strategic governance. I think there was not the will from very senior people to see child sexual exploitation as a priority for the police service.
“It has been said in the report that we were far more focused on the targets being set down from the Home Office in terms of burglary, vehicle crime, street robbery, all of which are very important, but are not as important as dealing with very vulnerable young girls who are being sexually abused by grown men.
“We now as of 2012 have multi-agency safeguarding hubs and there’s one in every police district in West Yorkshire where a really focused investigation plan that is tailored around individuals is put into place.”
Dept Supt Wallen added: “Back then if you were a senior officer you were being held to account for burglary figures and vehicle crime over and above the exploitation of the vulnerable. We were all driven by the same priorities.
“A number of us were very uncomfortable with that and I think in 2012 there was pressure brought to bear from within the police where the police service was saying ‘stop these targets’ because we are losing sight of actually what is really important.”
Bradford Council said the report did not expose issues of misplaced political correctness or cultural denial in Bradford, as Dame Louise Casey found in her scathing report on similar systematic abuse in Rotherham.