In the days before her life as an elected politician, Julia Mulligan was given an insight into the horrors of child grooming as she met a group of young girls from South Yorkshire as part of an NHS project.
The victims of sexual abuse, aged between 12 and 16 and described by local officials as street prostitutes, had more in common than they knew with the businesswoman who would go on to be North Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner.
More than 36 years ago as a teenager growing up in a North Yorkshire hill village, she was raped, an experience she found so difficult to process that she was unable to tell even her family or closest friends until a few weeks ago.
Attempting to come to terms with the ordeal and blaming herself for what happened, in an era when the relatively modern concept of consent had not reached rural North Yorkshire, the 15-year-old did not even consider the idea of involving the authorities.
And speaking to The Yorkshire Post, she says the experience of having nowhere to turn or a means of support meant she could easily place herself in the shoes of the exploited girls living not far from Rotherham, a town later to become synonymous with systemic abuse.
“Thinking about me and what happened, if I had been in that town centre I could have been in that room in very different circumstances,” she says, her voice wavering with emotion.
“It made me realise that people don’t have a voice, there is no-one there speaking up for them and this job [police commissioner] gives them a voice.
“I grew up on a hill farm in the middle of nowhere and my world was very limited. I got myself into a set of circumstances that I just couldn’t cope with. In this day and age there would be drugs and all sorts of stuff, but in a village in the middle of rural North Yorkshire in that day and age there wasn’t.
“You get yourself involved with a group of people you perhaps shouldn’t be getting yourself involved in. Which is why the grooming thing is so close to my heart.
“If you talk to people who are part of that type of situation, they are seeking the things I was seeking when I was 15. I was just in rural North Yorkshire and they were in South Yorkshire in more challenging circumstances.”
Late last year she told her parents, who had been trying to understand her behaviour in the days after the attack, but until yesterday many of her friends and colleagues were unaware of what happened to her.
The 51-year-old has chosen to talk publicly about her experience, although she is unwilling to go into any details in public that would allow police to investigate what happened.
Her decision is in part a result of the heightened awareness of the abuse of power by men and latent sexism that came with the global #Metoo campaign, but also what she feels are misunderstandings about her motivations for doing her job following a turbulent two years in office.
Her successful bid to take over the governance of North Yorkshire’s fire service was opposed by many local leaders, amid claims of a “power grab”, before a few months later what she described as deeply hurtful accusations of bullying behaviour towards her staff were upheld by a local scrutiny committee.
“With recent stuff and what has happened over the last two years, when people try and imagine what your motivations are, and get them entirely wrong, you feel you need to say something.”
Directly addressing the claims, she concedes that some of her behaviour may have contributed to feelings of unhappiness in some staff members, but says this comes down to differing views on the importance of her office’s work.
“I do this job, I do what I do, to protect people,” she says. “If in doing that I have done anything that is the opposite of that, then I find that very hard to deal with, it goes to the core of who I am.
“I am on a mission, I am driven. I want to make things better for people. I have to be cognisant of the fact that some people come to work because they just want to come to work, they are not on the same mission as me.
“Perhaps I need to be a little more sympathetic to that. If people are finding the pace and the challenge of the work difficult, that can be hard, but we are here to do a job and it can make a difference and that is what is important.”
Though she has becoming adept at suppressing the painful memories from three decades ago, she sometimes experiences flashbacks, the most recent being as she mucked out her horse a few hours before her interview with The Yorkshire Post. And she says the experience has had a profound effect on the way she looks at the world, contributing to what she admits is a tendency to be defensive.
Responding to the suggestion that critics might find the timing of her revelation suspicious, she says: “I am sure they might.
“We weighed that up very carefully when we thought about this. They will think what they think. If you talk to anyone who has been through an experience like this, to trivialise it in that way is wrong.
“You don’t speak about these things to do that. I am sure there are cynics out there, but you don’t talk to your dad about this for the first time ever to manipulate things.”
Praise from charities:
Two leading charities and North Yorkshire’s Chief Constable have praised the county’s police and crime commissioner for revealing that she was raped as a 15-year-old.
Julia Mulligan wrote in The Yorkshire Post yesterday that she “can’t keep this secret any more” and wants other victims to know she is “by their side”. The 51-year-old, who grew up in a North Yorkshire village, said the sexual assault took place 36 years ago and she only told her family and closest friends about it late last year.
North Yorkshire Chief Constable Lisa Winward praised Mrs Mulligan’s courage and said: “She has our absolute support, on a personal level as a colleague, and at an organisational level as a police service.” She said police were there to help victims of sexual crime would support anyone who come forward to report an attack as well as investigating the crime.
But she said: “These matters are extremely personal, so our approach is very much a victim-centred one. In this case, the incident has been logged, but the Commissioner has been clear that she does not want to make an official report to the police, and does not want the matter investigated at this time. That is her personal choice, and we respect it completely.”
Fay Maxted, chief executive of The Survivors Trust, said Mrs Mulligan’s revelations “highlight the difficulties and challenges that victims and survivors face in reaching a decision about whether or not to speak out”.
She said: “Her comments also bring home the terrible burden of guilt that many victims and survivors take on, mistakenly believing that they were in some way responsible for being sexually abused.”
Katie Russell, of charity Rape Crisis, said: “We should not be surprised when people in the public eye speak about sexual violence because it is much more widespread than people have understood in the past. The fact that awareness is being raised of its prevalence and impact is enormously positive.”
Contact The Survivors Trust at the survivorstrust.org/findsupport or on 0808 801 0818.