NI student groomed by sadistic paedophile: 'Used by many men - I was tied with a scarf to headboard and left for hours'
In an exclusive interview, Claire McNeilly talks to 'Greg' about how he was groomed and pimped out by a sadistic paedophile at just 12 years old.
At first, Greg comes across as your typical Northern Ireland student. The 22-year-old attends his lectures, shares a home with a friend and makes the most of his downtime. He enjoys life in Belfast, mingles with other young people and harbours dreams of a successful career after graduation.
But any sense of ordinariness belies Greg's horror backstory. It fails to reveal a tale of such revulsion that you involuntarily wince just listening to it.
It's a story of grooming, of exploitation, of repeated rape, of systematic and persistent sexual abuse of a young boy mercilessly and brutally robbed of the childhood that so many of us take for granted.
It's a cautionary account of someone who was targeted by a vile, violent paedophile who not only used an innocent adolescent for his own gratification, but pimped him out to countless others.
Yet, despite the violence, the mental and physical violation, the seemingly never-ending nightmare and the psychological scars, Greg wants his story to be heard.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all, however, is that he's still around to tell it.
He's a survivor. And he has chosen this week - Child Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week, organised by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland - to share with us how he clawed his way back from a darkness that, thankfully, most of us will never encounter but, sadly, some of us still do.
It all started a decade ago, when Greg (not his real name) was just 12. His mum and dad had separated, his two older sisters had flown the nest and he lived with his builder dad, who was in his mid-40s and drank heavily.
School life for the already troubled youngster was never wonderful, but after Greg came out prior to turning 13, things took a terrible turn for the worse.
That was when he made the fateful decision to go online, where he would make contact with Jason - a 26-year-old paedophile who called himself a businessman.
After two weeks of virtual chatting, Greg and Jason agreed to meet up, and just three weeks later they spent the night together.
"We stayed in a hotel and got intimate... it was my first time," recalls Greg. "I felt very loved. I felt that, above all, Jason was my friend. I was quite happy to just be friends, but he appeared to want a loving, intimate relationship, which I went along with.
"When someone buys you stuff and listens to your problems and tells you it's not your fault - which is what you think - it's very powerful... it swallowed me up. I bought into it".
Greg saw Jason as a route away from his troubled life, and Jason took full advantage.
"I was living with my dad, but we argued constantly and he drank a lot because of stresses at work," says Greg, who was living in London at the time.
"I just remember feeling that no one understood me. Then I came out as gay at school and immediately lost all my friends. I thought they'd understand... they were all I had.
"I suffered quite significant homophobic bullying in school and constant emotional abuse.
"The day I came out, a teacher took me aside and told me to report any problems, but I wasn't going to grass. I thought it would just make it worse."
In Greg's mind, the time had come to find new friends.
"I discovered a site that let young people join and I met Jason, who told me he was 18," says Greg.
"I could see from his pictures that he was clearly older, but I didn't mind because here was someone who was actually interested in me and what I had to say.
"Social services never listened to me. They came to assess me and I told them how unhappy I was with my dad and how we were always arguing, but they said it was my behaviour and nothing to do with my dad.
"It's no surprise that after chatting online every day for a couple of weeks I met up with Jason.
"He turned me away from everyone. He said the friends who deserted me after I came out were cowards. He said everything I wanted to hear.
"The first thing I thought when I met him was that he wasn't 18. About a month later, I confronted him about it and he admitted he was 26. But I went along with it because I felt important and I felt valued."
Jason showered Greg with gifts including new clothes, mobile phones, alcohol, drugs and more - and won him over.
"When I first met him it was lovely," he recalls.
"My dad had stopped giving me money and Jason bought me a new pair of trainers that I wanted.
"I was bunking off school and meeting him every day at that point.
"Less than a month after we met, he began taking me to a flat. It was sparsely furnished. There was so much food ground into the living room carpet that if you scraped it up you could have made a meal out of it. It was revolting.
"That's where some of the 'parties' were held. The others were in cheap hotels.
"There would be one or two other boys (aged 14 or 15) and six or seven grown men.
"The first time Jason asked me to do him a favour, it was to get intimate with a man in his late 40s.
"I didn't like the man and I didn't feel very comfortable with it, so I said, 'No, I'd rather not'. Then Jason slapped me across the face and said, 'Do you feel any more comfortable now?' That was three months down the line..."
Soon, being intimate with Jason's 'friends' became commonplace, as did the psychological conditioning.
"I sort of learned to not enjoy it, but not see it as a bad thing," Gregg says, at this point visibly struggling to speak as some of the more lurid memories flooded back into his mind.
"It became my new normal and I just took drugs to block everything out."
Greg explains that all he had wanted, as a troubled youngster who had just come out, was to be part of a world of like-minded people - and that's what Jason had promised to get him into.
"He took me to a bar when I was only 13 and I just felt so grown up," he remembers.
"He'd buy me drinks, then we'd go to a hotel or the flat and I'd go missing for two or three days."
Eight months after meeting Jason, Greg lied to a suspicious social worker that his new friend was 18.
"I thought if I said he was 26, she'd call the police," he says.
"Sexual exploitation was suspected, but no call was made to Barnardo's (the UK's largest charity for vulnerable children) at this stage."
Social services did, however, inform his family - and his father repeatedly punched him in the face until he gave up his mobile phone, which contained indecent images of him and Jason.
The phone was handed over to the police, but the abuse continued for another year.
"Without a statement from me, they couldn't do anything with the phone," says Greg, admitting he has never given that statement.
"Despite everything, I still felt that these people were my friends."
But it wasn't long before the child abuse and rape got a lot worse.
"Soon, all Jason needed me for was to have sex with other people," Gregg says.
"Men paid him - and he mostly paid me in the form of drugs, which I was now dependent on. I was on crack, heroin, ecstasy, a lot of ketamine, everything. I felt worthless; someone who was only good for having sex with.
"Not only was I going to the flat, but I was being taxied around the country to be with men... sometimes many of them at a time.
"The abuse then got more sadistic. My hands were tied with a scarf to a headboard and I was left there for hours.
"I had marks on my wrists for days afterwards. I was so terrified I didn't even try to free myself."
Things came to a head on Greg's 14th birthday, in May 2008.
"I was in foster care at that time and I hated my foster carer," he explains. "I hadn't been at school for months and I kept going missing for days at a time.
"The whole point of putting me into care was to safeguard me, but it just made it worse.
"It was as if, as soon as Jason found out I was in care, he upped the ante.
"He promised me we'd do something special together to celebrate my 14th birthday, but instead I got severely beaten up and raped that day.
"Finally, in the early hours of the morning, he unlocked the flat door and let me out. I made my way to A&E.
"I told the nurse I'd been in a fight - just like I had before - but she didn't believe me.
"She was different - she was warm and open. I finally broke down, told her that I'd been beaten and raped and social services were informed.
"I was taken to hospital, spoke to a counsellor there and then I was sectioned for three months."
Effectively, the nightmare was over, although the physical and psychological scars would be much harder to erase.
Greg had, after all, spent a year-and-a-half being horrifically abused by at least 100 different men, many of whom had got together at times to 'share' their vulnerable prey.
The young survivor believes social services must take some of the blame for this unthinkable ordeal. "They failed me monstrously," he says.
"I begged them to put me in care when they first started working with me before the exploitation started, but they wouldn't.
"I should have been referred to Barnardo's from the moment I disclosed I had met an 18-year-old, but no one did anything.
"It was that one nurse in A&E who showed a little bit of interest that changed everything.
"The exploitation stopped because while I was in hospital I had no access to a phone and I wasn't allowed out for three months.
"But the second I came out of hospital I would have gone straight back into the exploitation cycle if I hadn't been referred (by social services) to Barnardo's in August 2008. It was them who saved my life."
Greg was eventually discharged and put into a foster home.
He was still in the throes of drug addiction, something he wouldn't fully escape from until a 28-day spell in rehab when he was 16.
"I was in the foster system until I got my own place," he explains
"By the time I was 18 I'd been through therapy, got a job and a flat and was paying my own rent.
"I did it all by myself. I was free of professionals and I could stand on my own two feet.
"I felt a sense of accomplishment and pride. It felt good doing that."
A tale of redemption in the end, but with one note of caution that resonates even more during this particular week.
Jason - like so many other monsters - is still out there.
Drive to highlight signs and protect vulnerable kids
Child Sexual Exploitation Awareness Week is aimed at broadening the awareness of an increasingly important issue.
All week, members of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland — including Barnardo’s, the PSNI, local health trusts and the NSPCC — have been escalating their social media activity to highlight the threat faced by Northern Ireland children and increase awareness of the danger signs.
Barnardo’s NI has a service — called Safe Choices — which is dedicated to supporting young girls and boys who are, or are at risk of, being sexually exploited. It has been operating for 17 years.