Monday, April 07, 2014

'He was abused by a police officer': One woman's 25-year battle to bring her son's attacker to justice

As a teenager in the 1980s, Maureen Jenkins’s son Russel was sexually abused by a police officer. The officer’s colleagues refused to arrest him, despite complaints from other children.

Here, Maureen talks for the first time about her family’s 25-year battle to bring her son’s abuser to justice

At the age of 46, Maureen Jenkins, an ordinary wife and mother from Devon, decided to leave her unhappy marriage and sail 3,000 miles across the Atlantic single-handed, defying the disbelief of alarmed friends and relatives – she was only a novice sailor. Mo Jenkins subsequently wrote a book about her epic voyage in the 1990s and is now a popular inspirational speaker. But she has never been able to reveal the real reason behind her drive, until now.

The sad secret that Mo had kept private for so many years was that her son Russel Dawson had been sexually abused as a young teenager. As if that weren’t painful enough, the man who abused him was a serving police officer, a man admired and respected in her home town of Barnstaple. His colleagues refused to arrest him, and made her beloved son feel so worthless that he suffered a total breakdown in his late teens.

Last November, more than a quarter of a century later, former policeman Danny Bryant, 65, was finally jailed. He admitted sexually abusing Mo’s son and four other children, and was jailed for six and a half years.

It was only as a result of repeated efforts by Russel that police reopened investigations into Bryant and traced his other victims. After the trial, Russel, now 45, bravely waived his anonymity in order to campaign for an inquiry into why it took police so long to arrest their former colleague. It was at this point that I met Russel – and in the course of our interview he told me I should meet his mum: ‘I couldn’t have put Bryant behind bars without her; she healed us both. She’s such a strong, independent woman.’ Then, to my astonishment, he casually added that she was a trans-Atlantic solo sailor.

I visited Mo, now 68, on the cosy yacht where she lives with her second husband, Paul Fay, on the east coast of England. Tiny at just 5ft 1in, warm and motherly as she rustles up home-made soup, she has an endearing humility about her achievements. She laughs off the hardships of her voyage. ‘It liberated me. Sailing across an ocean was easy compared to my life before.’

So many people helped her achieve her dream, she says, including Paul, who built her boat. During the two years it took him to do this, he secretly fell for Mo – and she for him – and shortly before she sailed for America they each confessed their love. They married in 2001.

Mo was just 20 and pregnant with Colin, the eldest of her two sons, when she married her first husband, and she knew almost immediately that it was a mistake. But she loved motherhood and ‘knuckled under’ for the children’s sake, determined to be a good, dutiful wife. She and her husband built a successful vehicle-hire company and, from the outside, her life looked good. But, although she hid it, she was deeply unhappy.

Sitting next to the boat’s wood-burning stove, she recounts the painful events that she omitted from her book. She is close to both her sons, but they are ‘chalk and cheese’. Colin, who became a scientist, was confident, cheerful and an academic high-flyer from an early age. Russel, 18 months younger, was sensitive, artistic and did well at school until his early teens, when he began to struggle with schoolwork and relationships. She now knows why. From the age of 13, for nearly two years, Russel was abused by Bryant, who ran a surf life-saving club for local youngsters.

Mo encouraged both her sons to be active. Colin joined the air cadets and Russel at first loved Bryant’s club: ‘Surf life-saving seemed a great sport, useful and exciting, and Russel and the other boys and parents all really looked up to Danny Bryant.’ The policeman was charismatic, fun, a great teacher and, as team captain, Bryant led the boys in competitions around the country. But, unbeknownst to Mo, on these trips away, Bryant began secretly abusing Russel.

Like numerous child-abuse victims, Russel didn’t tell anyone: he felt silenced by bewilderment, shame and horror. This was the early 1980s, when no one talked about abuse or realised that it was widespread. Also, everyone Russel knew admired the policeman, who was soon after awarded a British Empire Medal for his youth work. Russel said, ‘I didn’t feel anyone would believe me.’

Like many victims, Russel tried mentally to blank out what was happening. He became reluctant to attend the club, but Mo encouraged him to continue going, ‘because,’ she says, ‘he’d loved it at first. But that’s when the abuse took place. Now I feel so guilty that I put him in the path of danger. What you want most for your children is to protect them – and I failed him. I never thought my son was in danger – he was with a policeman! And Danny Bryant was married, a father. I used to worry about my boy getting cold, and the sea’s dangers. But I couldn’t conceive of him being abused.’

Finally Russel cracked and quit the club. He became a dreamer and started doing badly at school. Mo worried about him but he wasn’t obviously depressed or using drugs: ‘just under-achieving, like a lot of youngsters’.

Then in 1988, when he was 19, Russel finally told his mother about the abuse. ‘He was so brave. He had heard about another boy who had been abused by Bryant so he felt that now he would be believed. He said he wanted to report it to the police to protect other children. I was devastated for him, but so proud of his courage.’

But at the police station, one officer said he was a friend of Bryant’s and no one would take a statement. When Mo protested, the police reaction was disturbing. ‘One officer said, "I can see where he gets his looks from – he’s beautiful." Russel is lovely looking, but [their attitude] was as if he had brought the abuse upon himself. The police had no idea how horrendous it had been for him. Then we had a letter saying there wasn’t enough evidence. They washed their hands of it.’

Outraged, Mo initiated a private prosecution. Within days, an officer visited their home, uninvited. ‘He said they would investigate Russel in depth and rip him apart in court and any dirt they found would be printed in the newspapers. Russel was too intimidated to continue.’

The family believe that police eventually realised that at least three children were abused by Bryant. ‘Russel felt the police protected Bryant because he was a serving police officer,’ says Mo, ‘and it made him feel so small and worthless. My good, gentle, kind son only notified police to stop this happening to another child. When no good resulted, he started taking drugs to escape the painful flashbacks and had a total breakdown.’

One day he rang Mo from a music festival in great distress, crying and saying, ‘Mum, I don’t know who I am’. She raced to take him to hospital. ‘He was banging on doors, begging for a doctor to help him. People say I’m brave for sailing oceans,’ she says, ‘but nothing compares to that time. Not feeling believed was a big injury for him. Mums are supposed to make things better, so it is terrible to watch your beautiful son torn apart and feeling powerless.’

Russel subsequently spent several months in a mental hospital while Mo battled with psychiatrists to get the right treatment for him. ‘At one point they told me he’d be in an institution for life.’ But gradually he stabilised and was able to come off the drugs and come home.

Then in 1993, the local paper reported that Bryant had been suspended after yet another child abuse allegation. Mo rang the police three times. ‘I said we’d help however we could. But no one would even talk to me.’ Soon after, mysteriously, the child’s family dropped the complaint, and Bryant took early retirement, aged 44, on medical grounds. He eventually set up a life-saving training company.

The police inaction reignited Mo’s anger and pain. ‘But I realised that if you let the hardships in life destroy you, there is no point living. That’s when sailing saved me, because at sea you have to focus completely. Russel often sailed with me and it helped him hugely too.’

In 2011, Russel contacted police one more time about Danny Bryant. Yet again the police told Russel there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. Then, in 2012, his stepfather Paul heard a local senior police officer on the radio assuring people that the police now took abuse allegations more seriously so he contacted the police once more, and the family engaged a solicitor. Paul – a former firefighter and trade union activist – also sent a list of questions, information and complaints to the police. In early 2013, a new police investigation finally began: Bryant was charged with offences against five children, dating back as far as the 1960s, and admitted his guilt.

Devon and Cornwall police say the first complaints about Bryant were ‘robustly investigated’ and his eventual prosecution resulted from different information. However, they are now investigating their conduct in the earlier inquiries, supervised by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but the family want an independent inquiry. Mo says, ‘Why wasn’t there enough evidence in 1988, 1993 or 2011, but suddenly enough in 2013? The police do a very hard job but one bad apple like Bryant taints everyone.’

The judge read out Russel’s victim impact statement at the trial. ‘It was awful to hear how hard it was for him to spend a quarter of a century not being believed,’ says Mo. ‘Russel will never get back the years he lost. But I am so proud of him, how brave and good he is [he is now working and happily married]. The strength of the human spirit is amazing, what you can endure and still carry on. I never doubted that one day we would have justice if we just kept at it.’

But Mo has shown equal courage – both in supporting Russel and in her lonely battle with the sea. I understand now why Russel said of her, ‘She’s not just my mum, she’s my heroine.’

Original report here




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