October 2016

Shamed children’s charity founder jailed for sexual offences including rape

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THE shamed founder of a Hampshire children’s charity has been jailed for 16 years for historic child sex offences – including rape – after refusing to go into the witness box to defend himself.

On Tuesday a jury at Winchester Crown Court found Ronald Nicholson Bennett, founder of the disbanded Brave Hearts Children’s Charity Association, guilty of five counts of historic sexual abuse which took place in Hampshire and East Anglia in the 1980s.

The 72-year-old, of Launcelot Close, was originally charged with one count of rape and three counts of indecent assault of a girl under 14 involving the first victim.

Two of the indecent assault charges were changed during the proceedings extending the age range from 14 to 16 but the jury, made up of nine men and three women, found Bennett unanimously guilty of all four counts.

He was further charged with two counts of gross indecency towards a second victim and the jury found him guilty by majority on one count and no verdict was reached on the second charge.

Throughout the week-long trial before Judge Susan Evans, Bennett wore a dark suit and needed the aid of a hearing loop as the court heard evidence from both victims, who cannot be named for legal reasons, and witnesses for the prosecution.

When Adrienne Knight, mitigating, opened the case for the defence Bennett chose not to take the witness stand to defend himself having given no comment interviews following both arrests in 2013 and 2015 but his wife and son were called to give evidence in his favour.

Addressing the jury about Bennett’s failure to give evidence in his closing speech on Friday, prosecutor Russell Pyne, said: “Ladies and gentlemen, when I opened this case to you on Monday I told you that it was going be a decision of credibility.

“I did not know the defendant’s stance.

“It is not far from the dock to the witness box but it seems too far for this defendant.”

He continued: “My submission to you is there is only one reason why he decided not to give evidence, because he had an unpalatable choice.

“If he went into the witness box and told the truth it would lead to convicting him. If he went into the witness box and told you lies, he is scared of you discovering that they were lies.”

Defending Bennett’s refusal to stand witness, Miss Knight told the jury that the burden of proof is on the prosecution.

She said: “That means that the defendant doesn’t have to say anything.

“The law says he does not have to give evidence if it does not suit him.”

Asking the jury to return a not guilty verdict on all six counts, she continued: “You don’t have to decide that these ladies are lying to return a verdict of not guilty, you only have to think that there is an outside chance that they are unreliable to return a verdict of not guilty.

“It can take a lifetime to know when somebody is fabricating, you have to take that into consideration, that to convict somebody after 30 years on somebody who changes their evidence, you don’t know them, you don’t know anything about them and you don’t know what they are capable of.

“By the prosecution even asking you to return a verdict is asking you to speculate because you simply don’t know what the truth is.”

Judge Evans released the jury on Monday morning to deliberate and they returned the guilty verdicts the following afternoon.

The former security officer set up the Brave Hearts Children’s Charity Association in 1991 to raise money to help youngsters that needed special assistance or support.

In 2007 he was named fundraiser of the year at the Pride of Andover awards where he was congratulated by Esther Rantzen.

Following sentencing, Detective Constable Paul Harfield said: “Ron Bennett preyed on young girls, targeting families when they were at their most vulnerable, paying no regard to the long-term effects on the victims or their families.

“He formerly enjoyed a high profile locally on the back of his charity work for disadvantaged children, but he will now have time in prison to consider the disingenuous life he has led.

“Hopefully this sentence will provide some closure for his victims and their families, who have all lived a very long time with the negative effects of Bennett’s actions.

“Society is safer now that Bennett no longer has access to vulnerable young girls.”