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Jail terms for school abuse trio

Published 27/05/2015

The three men worked at Swaylands School
The three men worked at Swaylands School

Three men have been jailed after being found guilty of historical sexual abuse at a school for vulnerable boys over a period of more than 30 years.

Colwyn Baker, 71, David Hennessy, 75, and Nigel Putman, 62, abused youngsters at the now-defunct Swaylands School in Penshurst, Kent.

As well as the abuse committed by the trio, Baker encouraged other pupils to abuse other children at the school for youngsters aged around eight to 16.

His "favourites" were known as "Baker's Boys" and over many years Baker "ruled by fear" using intimidation and coercion, a judge said.

Sentencing the men, the judge said the case "constitutes one of the worst possible breaches of trust that a court can deal with".

And he added that the abuse suffered by the victims would be "seared in their memory banks ... for the rest of their lives".

The three men were residential child care officers at Swaylands, which closed in 1994, but their abuse left many victims with life-long problems, according to victim impact statements.

Barnet Council in north London ran the school, which was an institution for young people with moderate learning difficulties and later schooled boys with emotional and behavioural problems.

At Maidstone Crown Court today, Baker, of Craighouse Avenue, Morningside, Edinburgh, was jailed for 20 years after being found guilty of 20 counts, stretching back to 1963, following a 12-week trial.

Hennessy, of Westfields, Narborough, King's Lynn, Norfolk, was jailed for 12 years after being convicted of six counts and Putman, of Kings Road, Slough, Berkshire, was jailed for three years after being found guilty of two counts.

In a packed courtroom, victim impact statements were read by prosecutor Philip Bennetts QC, detailing the toll the abuse had had on victims' lives.

One victim said in his statement: "At the time I didn't realise it was wrong because the abuse was done in a way that made it seem OK.

"I was sent to the school because I needed looking after. I was a little boy and I wasn't looked after. I was made to do things that I shouldn't. This will always affect me."

Another told how he had only been at the school for two weeks when Hennessy started abusing him. He said he blamed himself "for letting him do it" and could "never sleep peacefully".

He said: "I didn't stand a chance. It was a school for vulnerable children and they took advantage of that."

He added that the experience had "ruined his life" and he suffers from nightmares and flashbacks.

All three men sat in the dock impassively as the statements were read, with Baker occasionally taking sips from a cup of water.

During their trial, Mr Bennetts said the atmosphere at the school was one "where abuse was almost the norm".

One of Baker's victims became so scared that he often stayed awake at night, sleeping in stairwells to avoid Baker.

As a result, the boy would often fall asleep in class, causing a dramatic decline in his learning. But Mr Bennetts said the boy ended up being caned by the headmaster as a punishment for dozing off.

In mitigation, Benjamin Narain, defending Baker, said he suffered from medical issues, including hypertension, diabetes and had made several suicide bids after suffering depression.

Since leaving Swaylands, Baker had gained a degree in software engineering from Edinburgh Napier University, Mr Narain added.

He conceded that prison would be a "hard experience" for Baker but accepted he faced a lengthy term of imprisonment for the abuse he committed.

Alan Kent QC, for married ex-Royal Navy member Hennessy, spoke of his client's confusion about his sexuality in his younger years. And he said Hennessy had lived for the past 20 years an "unblemished life" in Norfolk.

Henry Grunwald QC, for Putman, described his client as "of positive good character" who was married with an adopted daughter, adding he suffered from Type 2 diabetes and was the primary carer for his ill wife.

Lawyers at law firm Leigh Day, representing survivors of abuse at the school, have said the men "picked on" the most vulnerable children who came from already troubled backgrounds or had special needs.

Instead of being sent from London to Swaylands to be cared for, the men "cruelly abused" them and created an environment where sex between children became "normalised through fear", said Alison Millar, head of the abuse team at Leigh Day.

Questions have been raised about the checks made to ensure appropriate people were trusted with the care of the children and about supervision arrangements.

Jurors were told during the trial that Baker was convicted in 1994 of four counts of indecent assault on a boy aged under 16 and one count of gross indecency.

And it was also disclosed that Hennessy was convicted in December 1993 of four counts of indecent assault on a boy and two sex offences against a pupil.

There were further calls, following the case, for a British "mandatory reporting" law to be introduced where those who do not report child abuse suspicions face prosecution.

Barnet Council has said it was sorry for the abuse suffered by the victims. And it said there was a "continuing need to learn lessons from the past" to keep children safe.

A council spokesman said it no longer runs distant boarding schools for vulnerable children. Barnet's two current residential children's homes are both within the borough.

Judge Philip Statman said that, to the outsider, Swaylands had excellent facilities, with a swimming pool and regular trips were laid on for children.

"But when the veneer was stripped away in this courtroom it has been revealed in a wholly different picture, namely one of sexual abuse, perpetrated by those in a position of trust against young, vulnerable boys as they approached and proceeded through adolescence," he said.

The judge praised the victims for their "courage, dignity and restraint" as well as police for upholding the "highest standards".

And, addressing the men in the dock, he went on: "What those pupils, as they then were, suffered at your hands is seared in their memory banks, in my judgment, for the rest of their lives.

"At a time when they were journeying through adolescence and had arrived at school with educational difficulties, needing stability and a caring environment, they were met by sexual abuse.

"The night-time hours became a time of fear for them. Who among those who have sat in this court listening to the evidence will forget the evidence of (a victim) and of how he would hide at night to avoid attention from sexual abuse.

"They remained scarred by what happened to them and it's clear from their victim impact statements of their shame and embarrassment.

"Who could they trust? Who would listen to them? How many have had to challenge their own sexual identity?"

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