Wherever he went, Rolf Harris groped. The irony is that he also gave public talks to raise awareness about sexual abuse.
Harris - who was found guilty by a British court yesterday of 12 counts of indecently assaulting four girls - was brought to New Zealand by Parentline in August 1986 as part of a child sex abuse awareness campaign. It was the same year he indecently assaulted a 14-year-old girl in England.
Harris, who performed in New Plymouth in the 1970s, visited New Zealand many times, and could face charges in this country after allegations that he sexually abused girls here as far back as 40 years ago.
Harris, 84, was found guilty in the Southwark Crown Court in England early yesterday on 12 charges of indecently assaulting four girls from 1968 to 1986,
Witnesses from New Zealand gave evidence at the trial, but Harris was not charged with offences against them, as the court did not have jurisdiction to prosecute incidents that took place outside Britain.
A spokeswoman for Crown Law said it was possible Harris could be prosecuted in relation to the alleged victims in New Zealand.
A New Zealander, referred to as MC at the trial, was about 16 when she met Harris at a private cocktail party in the North Island in 1970.
MC said Harris put his hands up her dress, and she saw "the dark side of a man that I thought could be trusted".
A former Evening Post reporter who interviewed Harris in the mid-1990s, said she "wasn't at all surprised" when allegations against the 84-year-old surfaced last August.
The woman, who did not want to be named, said she recalled Harris' sleaziness during an interview in a Wellington central city hotel. "He didn't grope me as such, but he put his hand on my leg and looked at me while he held his hand there and squeezed my leg," she said. "It was sleazy and I remember thinking, ‘Ew, gosh, what a creep'.
"I'm very glad to see he's been found guilty. I'm sure he's done it to hundreds of women."
In 1986 Harris spent three days in Hamilton, promoting a video in which he spoke out against sexual abuse. He had commissioned and fronted the video in England, with endorsement from its National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
The video ends with a catchy tune and dance, where Harris sings with 20 cheery kids: "My body's nobody's body but mine, you run your own body, let me run mine."
Maxine Hodgson, founder and former chief executive of Parentline, brought Harris to New Zealand.
Hodgson spent part of the visit in his company and found when he was alone he was far removed from his public image.
"I was with him 50 per cent of that time, driving him around from place to place. He was a grumpy old bastard [and] very demanding. He was sour and irritable and he did not want to do things. But the moment we got to where we had to go he took on the bright, happy persona that people know him for.
"For some reason he did not seem to feel the need to hide his true self from me. You might say I saw both the Jekyll and Hyde of him.
"I was surprised when I heard of the allegations against him. But I'm surprised every time when brave people come forward and say ‘This happened to me'. Abusers are not usually people in grubby coats. They are personable and colluding and manipulative to get what they want."
She hoped the verdict would help to get people talking about the issue of child abuse.
"I hope there is not going to be any leniency and he gets due justice. People tend to feel sympathetic for frail old men, but the only way they can truly be frail is if they are in a wheelchair with their hands cut off. That's the only way people can be safe from these paedophiles."
Child Matters chief executive Anthea Simcock also met Harris during his Hamilton visit. Unlike Hodgson, she saw only the Australian entertainer's affable public personality.
"When he was here promoting his video about child abuse he seemed so plausible. He had this song which went ‘My body's nobody's body but mine, you run your own body, let me run mine' - the lyrics were very catchy and got stuck in your head, even to this day."
Harris' enthusiastic endorsement of the anti-abuse campaign was, as it turned out, a devious means of cloaking his attraction to underage girls, she said.
"The relevant word is plausible. When you have someone like him going out of his way to protect children the natural reaction is not to suspect them of anything."
The visit to Hamilton included trips to schools, a marae and lectures at social service agencies. Harris also did two large paintings at then-Chartwell Square, which were auctioned and used to raise money for the campaign.
In an interview with the Waikato Times he said he had decided to speak up against sexual abuse.
"I thought it would be good to repay the happiness in my childhood."
The 1986 visit is not Harris' only connection to the Waikato. At his trial, jurors heard evidence of abuse against New Zealand girls, including an alleged incident involving a 15-year-old girl in Hamilton in 1991. The alleged abuse did not form part of the charges he faced, as it occurred outside the Southwark Crown Court's jurisdiction.
The court heard in 1991, in Hamilton, the 15-year-old girl accompanied her mother to see Harris at a promotion for British Paints at a local hardware store.
"[Harris] stepped towards [the girl] as if to hug her and then put his right hand into her blouse and touched her left breast. At the same time he put his left hand on her right buttock and squeezed it," Crown prosecutor Sasha Wass, QC, told the court.Maxine Hodgson, the founder and former chief executive of Parentline who brought Harris to Hamilton, found he was far removed from his public identity when he was alone.
"He was sour and irritable and he did not want to do things. But the moment we got to where we had to go he took on the bright, happy persona that people know him for.
"For some reason he did not seem to feel the need to hide his true self from me. You might say I saw both the Jekyll and Hyde of him."
She hoped the verdict would get people talking about the issue of child abuse.
- Taranaki Daily News
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