Rolf Harris 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’s 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.”