Updated: 05/09/2014 21:07 | By Agence France-Presse

Rolf Harris dubbed 'the Octopus' for touching girls, court hears

Veteran Australian entertainer Rolf Harris used his status as a much-loved television celebrity to launch a string of sexual assaults on children, a British court heard as his trial opened Friday.


Rolf Harris dubbed 'the Octopus' for touching girls, court hears

Veteran Australian artist and entertainer Rolf Harris arrives at Southwark Crown Court in central London on May 9, 2014 - by Leon Neal

The 84-year-old, a fixture on British screens for decades who once painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, was nicknamed "the Octopus" due to his wandering hands, prosecutors said.

Harris is accused of 12 counts of indecent assault against four female complainants, the youngest of whom was aged seven or eight and the oldest 19, between 1968 and 1986. He denies the charges.

"Mr Harris was too famous, too powerful and his reputation made him untouchable," prosecutor Sasha Wass told Southwark Crown Court in London.

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

The star's wife Alwen and other family members accompanied him to court.

Harris is the latest in a series of celebrities to face trial in Britain since the late BBC presenter Jimmy Savile was exposed as a prolific child sex offender in 2012.

Harris is well-known as a painter, entertainer and television presenter in both Britain, where he moved in 1952, and his homeland.

- 'Jekyll and Hyde' -

But the prosecutor said there was a "Jekyll and Hyde" aspect to Harris's character.

"You will hear from a make-up artist from Channel 7 in Australia that Rolf Harris's reputation was such that he was known as 'The Octopus' because of the way that he would put his hands all over women," Wass said.

Wass said the white-bearded, bespectacled entertainer had "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.

"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," said Wass.

One young victim was a friend of Harris's daughter, whom the entertainer allegedly first abused while on holiday in Hawaii when she was 13 and then "groomed like a pet" over many years, the court heard.

On the first occasion, Harris pretended to hug and tickle the alleged victim while she was wrapped only in a towel, then touched her genitals, Wass said.

The girl became terrified of Harris and started drinking at the age of 14 as the abuse continued. Teachers noticed that she was often tearful, the court heard.

Harris later wrote a letter to her father admitting having a consensual affair with the woman when she was older, and expressing regret, Wass said.

He described being in a state of "self loathing" and feeling "sickened" by himself.

- 'Brazen' -

Wass said the jurors would hear of other cases in which Harris touched children and women in "brazen" circumstances.

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

Eight alleged victims will give evidence, four of whom are the subject of the indictments against Harris, while the others are supporting witnesses. 

"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," Wass said.

The prosecutor urged the jury to reject any suggestion that the alleged victims were "jumping on the bandwagon" after British police launched an inquiry into Savile's behaviour and arrested several celebrities.

Harris painted an 80th birthday portrait of Queen Elizabeth in 2005, took part in her diamond jubilee celebrations in 2012, and has been honoured by both Britain and Australia.

As a singer, he topped the Australian charts in 1960 with "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" and the British charts in 1969 with "Two Little Boys".

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