WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand's top police officer on Friday defended his force's investigation into an online "rape club" that allegedly preyed on under-age girls, arguing "we're actually the good guys in this business".
Police have faced accusations they were either incompetent or indifferent for failing to launch a prosecution against a gang that boasted online about sexually abusing young girls, despite knowing about it for two years.
But police commissioner Peter Marshall said he had complete faith in his officers and welcomed an independent review ordered by the government amid mounting public disquiet.
"Anyone would think we're the bad guys in this situation, let's keep the focus on the individuals who are actually causing the problems out there," Marshall told Radio New Zealand.
He said the failure to prosecute was due to lack of evidence and had nothing to do with the fact that one of the gang's alleged ringleaders is the son of an Auckland police officer.
"Not at all, we have an absolute track record of prosecuting without fear or favour," he said.
The case centres on a gang of young males calling themselves "Roast Busters", who boasted online about plying girls as young as 13 with alcohol then having group sex with them.
The gang, most believed to be aged in their late teens, reportedly used Facebook to meet the girls then posted comments and videos on the social media site bragging about their exploits and humiliating their victims.
Police initially said they could not prosecute because no victims had come forward, only to backtrack when it emerged four girls had complained to them, one of whom made a formal statement.
The girl who made the statement told New Zealand television this week that police had not been supportive and implied she was "pretty much asking for it" because she wore a skirt when she met members of the group in 2011.
Her allegation is set to be investigated by the police watchdog but Marshall said questions about her clothing would have been asked as part of a wide-ranging interview.
"She's a young girl, it's an extensive interview, and questions have to be asked in an appropriate and delicate way," he said.
Marshall has appointed a senior officer to take over the case and he said concerns about police conduct should not become a distraction from the inquiry's main goal - gathering enough evidence to launch a prosecution.
He urged any young women who had been abused by the group to come forward and provide police with testimony.
Prime Minister John Key told parliament Thursday that the performance of police was "frankly, not good enough", but has underlined that hard evidence is needed to bring a prosecution.