Sydenham's Rolf Harris 'too famous to be challenged over sex assaults'

News Shopper: Sydenham's Rolf Harris sex assault trial due to start Sydenham's Rolf Harris sex assault trial due to start

Veteran entertainer Rolf Harris, who lived in Sydenham during the 1960s and 1970s, escaped punishment for a string of alleged indecent assaults for years because he was "too famous", a jury has heard.

Prosecutor Sasha Wass QC told London's Southwark Crown Court that the 84-year-old is "not merely a celebrity but a national popular figure" who has widespread appeal, especially as a children's entertainer.

She said of his alleged victims: "They were overawed at meeting Rolf Harris. Mr Harris was too famous, too powerful and his reputation made him untouchable."

Harris faces a total of 12 counts of indecent assault between 1968 and 1986, all of which he denies.

Opening the case to a packed courtroom, Ms Wass said Harris was a regular fixture on television in the 1970s and his "glittering career" continued well into this millennium.

The prosecutor described him as "an immensely talented man" who excelled in art, music and children's entertainment, telling jurors that he painted a picture of the Queen in 2005 to commemorate her 80th birthday and was made a CBE the following year.

Ms Wass said it was Harris's fame and reputation that meant nobody suspected him or challenged his behaviour and he was able to carry out "brazen" sexual assaults, often when other people were present or nearby.

The court heard that the entertainer was known as "the octopus" because of the way he put his hands all over women, but Ms Wass said he knew his alleged victims were in awe of him and mesmerised by him, so knew he could get away with it.

She went on: "The prosecution does not, for a minute, suggest that there is not a good, talented and kind side to Mr Harris.

"But concealed behind this charming and amicable children's entertainer lay a man who exploited the very children who were drawn to him."

Describing him as a "Jekyll and Hyde" character, she said: "This dark side of Rolf Harris was obviously not apparent to all of the other people he met during the course of his work, and it was not apparent to those who may want to testify to his good character."

She said it was "a side of him which is sexually attracted to children and under-age girls" and "a side which gave him the confidence to molest girls knowing that they could not object and, even if they did, nobody would believe them."

Harris, sitting in the dock wearing a grey suit, white shirt and multi-coloured tie, listened intently to the proceedings through a hearing loop as the prosecution case was outlined.

Ms Wass said he is "immensely talented" as an artist, musician and entertainer.

She told the jury: "Mr Harris is not a mere celebrity, he is a national popular figure who has broad-ranging appeal, especially to children.

"Rolf Harris now appears before you for a series of sexual offences against children committed during the height of his popularity as a children's entertainer.

"It was precisely that popularity and that celebrity status that provided Mr Harris with access to children and young women and he took advantage of his fame and popularity to interfere with his victims and to sexually molest them."

The prosecutor went on: "Rolf Harris' fame and reputation meant that no-one suspected or challenged his behaviour.

"The witnesses who will give evidence in this case, particularly those who were very young at the time, describe the confusion that they felt when Mr Harris sexually assaulted them, whether they were sitting on his knee at the time or posing for a photo."

Ms Wass warned that victims of sexual abuse can be vulnerable.

She told the jury of six women and six men, sitting alongside three extras: "Victims of sexual abuse become damaged people. They are psychologcally fragile and can find it difficult to talk about their experiences.

"It's likely in this case that the victims who give evidence will be criticised for being vulnerable and unreliable.

"Some of them may be vulnerable, but you will have to ask yourselves what drove these witnesses to the state that they are in.

"What's important is not whether they are damaged, it is whether they are telling the truth."

Harris's wife Alwen and other members of his family sat listening in the public gallery alongside dozens of UK and international journalists in the packed courtroom.

Ms Wass went on: "It will be said in this case that certain of the victims are lying, it will be said they they have invented the events. It will be suggested that they are motivated by money or attention or revenge and it will be said that they are jumping on the bandwagon after the inquiry into Jimmy Savile's behaviour started at the end of 2012."

She told the court that eight alleged victims will give evidence, four of whom are the subject of on the indictment, and the others supporting witnesses.

"The chances of so many people making up similar false allegations are just ludicrous," Ms Wass told the court.

She went on to outline allegations made by one of the victims, who is the subject of seven of the 12 counts that Harris faces.

Ms Wass said the girl was groomed like "a young puppy who had been trained to obey"."

The woman eventually consented to sexual activity with Harris because she had been "groomed like a pet", it is claimed.

Harris admits having a consensual affair with the woman, and wrote a letter to her father expressing his regret.

Ms Wass said: "It was a confess and avoid letter. By that I mean that Mr Harris admits that he had a sexual relationship with (the woman), but without admitting that it had taken place when she was under-age. Rather like when President Clinton admitted that he had smoked cannabis but said that he didn't inhale."

One alleged victim, who is the subject of seven of the counts, claims she was first abused by Harris while on holiday in Hawaii when she was 13.

Describing the first indecent assault, Ms Wass said Harris pretended to hug and tickle her while she was wrapped only in a towel, then touched her genitals.

The prosecutor said jurors would see a pattern of Harris approaching girls in a "purely friendly way", then taking advantage of the situation to indecently assault them.

The court heard that, after that first incident, the girl was "stunned" and did nothing to stop Harris, whom she had always been in awe of, and decided to pretend nothing had happened.

The star assaulted her several times during the holiday, "whether or not there were family members nearby".

Ms Wass said: "You will hear during the course of this case other instances where Mr Harris touched children and women alike in quite brazen circumstances.

"It may be that that was part of the excitement, knowing that he could do that and get away with it."

It is alleged that the abuse went on for a number of years, and that the girl's parents trusted Harris, so did not suspect him.

"Rolf Harris was a pilllar of society; a well-respected man and somebody who was well-known for being fond of children," the court was told.

Jurors heard that the girl became petrified of Harris and started drinking at the age of 14.

Harris would abuse her in her own home as well as his, the court heard, and even in the presence of other people.

On one occasion when she was 15, she pretended to orgasm while Harris performed oral sex on her, to "bring the episode to an end", the court heard.

By that point, her teachers had noticed her demeanour and one form mistress wrote in her school notes, saying: "She is prone to tears and has twice been weeping about private/home matters."

Ms Wass said the alleged victim's dependence on alcohol was "a direct result of what Mr Harris was doing to her".

"She drank in order to block out what was happening. Within a few years, she was a full-blown alcoholic."

On another occasion, it is alleged, Harris gave the teenager oral sex as another girl slept in the same room.

Ms Wass said: "(The alleged victim) thought that it was as though the risk of doing this so near to (the other girl) was exciting him."

The jury was told: "He never treated her as an equal or a human being. He never had a meaningful conversation with her. She felt, as I said to you, that she was his little toy.

"As a result of this grooming process, (the alleged victim) had become completely compliant."

It is claimed that eventually the woman consented to Harris's demands, giving him oral sex in a car in 1987 when she was 22, but said she was "ashamed and disgusted with herself".

Ms Wass said this showed that "the grooming process had been completed".

"Grooming is the process by which an offender draws his victim into a controlling sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy.

"Grooming a child is similar in many ways to grooming an animal. You take your subject from a young age, you control what you want to do to them and, by the time they are trained or groomed, they will obey without question."

Another time, when the woman was 24, it is alleged that Harris put his hand in her trousers in front of two women and a nine-year-old boy, who said: "Why have you got your hands down (the woman's) trousers?"

"The defendant just laughed and denied it. Even when caught red-handed, he knew he was untouchable," Ms Wass said.

The alleged victim met Harris on various occasions, including when he was performing in a pantomime in south west London in 1994.

It is claimed that he tried to put his hand in her trousers, and that she gave him oral sex in his dressing room.

In the mid-1990s, she wrote to Harris to ask for a donation to a bird sanctuary, which he refused.

The jury heard that the defence claims she was trying to blackmail him, which the prosecution denies.

The court heard that the alleged victim confided in a friend at school that she had been abused by Harris, who she described as a "dirty old man" and that it had started when she was 13.

As she sought help for her alcohol dependency in 1996, her notes described how she appeared to have told doctors about abuse she suffered from the age of 13 until her late 20s.

Around that time, the woman finally revealed to her family that Harris had abused her.

She wrote to the entertainer telling him she had told her parents, prompting him to drive to their house in Norfolk to see her while they were out.

While there the woman told him he had "ruined her life" and was disgusted by what he had done, then made him walk around the village with her while berating him.

The court heard that the alleged victim's disclosure prompted her father to write to Harris.

In a reply, thought to have been sent in March 1997, the artist confessed to having a sexual relationship with the woman, but said it had stemmed from "love and friendship" and denied it started when she was 13.

In the letter, he described being in a state of "self loathing" and feeling "sickened" by himself for the misery he had caused her.

"You can't go back and change things that you have done in this life - I wish to god I could," he wrote.

He went on: "As I do these animal programmes, I see the unconditional love that dogs give to their owners and I would I could start to love myself again.

"If there is any way that I could atone for what I have done I would willingly do it. If there is any way I can start to help (the alleged victim) heal herself, I would willingly do it."

He apologised to the man for betraying his trust and added: "I know that what I did was wrong but we are, all of us, fallible and oh how I deluded myself. Please forgive me, love Rolf."

Later the alleged victim told her GP, a counsellor and a psychologist about her abuse claims.

Ms Wass told the court: "She made these revelations, not in order to get money or attention or revenge, but she did it because she wanted to get her life back together.

"(The woman) did not tell the police about what Rolf Harris had done to her for many, many years. She made it plain to those looking after her that she did not have the strength to do so. She thought the prospect of going to court would actually kill her."

The alleged victim said that claims about Jimmy Savile made her reconsider her position, and she reported the alleged abuse to police in November 2012.

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