Belfast Telegraph

'When my sex attacker was crowned Mr Northern Ireland it brought the pain and hurt rushing back'

Catherine Bell who was sexually assaulted in 2014 by Paul Pritchard who went on to be crowned Mr NI
Catherine Bell who was sexually assaulted in 2014 by Paul Pritchard who went on to be crowned Mr NI
Mark Edwards

By Mark Edwards

A man was crowned Mr Northern Ireland less than two years after sexually assaulting a woman in a Belfast nightclub.

Paul Pritchard from Ballymena was crowned Mr NI in 2016 and held the title until 2018 despite being convicted of sexually assaulting Catherine Bell at the Villa nightclub on April 18, 2014. The nightclub, on Dunbar Street, is now called Lux.

The mother-of-two, who is now 26, has waived her anonymity to tell her story after finding out last year that Pritchard had gone on to be crowned Mr NI.

A drunken Pritchard, who now runs a dog day care centre in Newtownabbey, sexually groped Catherine and bit her neck while she was out with a friend at the nightclub in Belfast.

The incident happened when Catherine, who was enjoying a night out with a close friend, approached Pritchard in the smoking area to ask if he was all right.

In a statement to the police, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, Catherine tells of how she saw a woman slumped over in the smoking area and went to see if she was okay. As she did so she saw Pritchard standing with his T-shirt ripped.

"I was concerned because he was on his own and thought he may have been in a fight," Catherine says in her statement.

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Paul Pritchard
Paul Pritchard

"He said: 'Do you not know who I am'. I replied: 'No, who are you?' He said: 'I'm Paul Pritchard'."

Catherine then describes Pritchard placing his hand around her waist before pulling her in tight and saying he was going to "f*** her".

Catherine attempted to attract the attention of other people in the nightclub. "The male started to kiss and bite the left side of my neck," she said.

"I said: 'That's not how you behave with a girl'. The male (Pritchard) replied: 'I don't care, I'm going to f*** you and pull your hair and hurt you'."

At this point in her police statement Catherine describes Pritchard running his hand through her hair before pulling her hair hard.

Catherine was wearing a black cropped T-shirt and a long rust coloured skirt.

"The male grabbed the collar of my top and pulled it down. He placed one of his hands inside my top and was touching my breasts. I pressed my T-shirt closed and said: 'Stop, that's not what you do to girls'. He replied: 'I want to hurt your nipples'." Catherine's statement says that Pritchard then put his hands on her thighs and ran them up her legs and around her bottom, before squeezing it. Catherine then punched Pritchard in a bid to free herself from his grasp.

She said: "I tried to walk away but he stood in the way and put his arm out and pulled me back in. This happened a few times. The male then tried to pull my top down again. I said no and he said: 'I can wait'. He kept repeating: 'I'm going to f*** you, over and over'."

Eventually Catherine was able to escape Pritchard's clutches and immediately ran to a bouncer, who ejected him from the nightclub.

A sobbing Catherine then got a taxi home and reported the sexual assault to the police.

"My mum came round and the police took my clothes away in evidence bags. They took statements from me and my friend," Catherine told the Belfast Telegraph.

Police took a sketch of one of Pritchard's tattoos and arrested him a couple of weeks later. However, the ordeal was far from over for Catherine, who had to relive her sexual assault in court.

Catherine Bell on the night she was sexually assaulted
Catherine Bell on the night she was sexually assaulted

"The barrister that was cross-examining me was very 'so you were drinking, he is a very attractive man, did you not want to? (have sex with him)'," she said.

Pritchard was convicted of sexual assault and paid £750 in compensation to Catherine.

Catherine tried to move on with her life - but the incident raised its head again after she discovered her attacker gained the title of Mr NI less than two years after sexually assaulting her.

The ACA model agency, which is run by former Miss Northern Ireland Alison Clarke, selects Mr Northern Ireland.

Catherine questions why a criminal record check was not done on Pritchard before being handed the title.

"There is a conviction, it is on his criminal record. Any access NI check would have brought that up," she said.

"I was disgusted when I found out. I don't think somebody can behave that way and then be rewarded and say this is the utmost role model for men in Northern Ireland. And then to be given privileges and everything that he has got from that.

"I have a son and a daughter and if my son dared to think that was the way to treat anybody and then expect to be given something like that... and for my daughter to see that this is the type of men people are looking up to? It worries me.

"I know that this sort of thing happens all the time, especially in nightclubs.

"It is always palmed off as drink was involved, it didn't mean any harm, it is fine. But it is not fine."

In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph, Alison Clarke said: "We were not aware of any such convictions that this individual had at the time he was Mr Northern Ireland in 2016.

"He is not on our books and in no capacity did any paid jobs as Mr Northern Ireland."

Catherine said the sexual assault has greatly impacted her life. "It has affected my relationship with men," she said.

"More so now than it did before. It is on my mind all the time, I am snappy, I cry for no reason. I am still afraid to talk about it. I am afraid people will say: 'Oh you were in a nightclub, what do you expect?'

"Are people just going to think I am being dramatic? Are they going to believe me at all, am I jealous? Did I get rejected and that is why I am doing this?

"There are times I don't want to be touched. It is just anger, even five years on.

"That night when the police left I sat in the bath for five hours, just in the water trying to get clean."

Asked what her message is to her attacker, Catherine said: "You can't behave like that with women or men, you need to have respect for other people as well as yourself.

"The way he got on says a lot about him as a person.

"If he is wanting to go along this route with Mr NI and being in the public eye you can't behave like that, you have to stick by what you are promoting and standing for. Practice what you preach."

Pritchard was repeatedly approached for a response to Catherine's comments but did not reply.

The Courts Service declined to confirm Pritchard's sentence on data protection and privacy grounds.

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