By JODIE SPEERS, CHANNEL 7
In a bland, windowless courtroom on the basement level of Sydney’s Downing Centre court, a forensic psychiatrist climbs into the witness box.
Dr Olav Nielssen is accustomed to analysing high-profile criminals. This time, it’s Robert Hughes – the former star of Hey Dad! who’s been convicted of sexually abusing four girls.
Paedophiles, Nielssen says, usually come across “quite creepy and distasteful”. But “I didn’t detect anything like that from Mr Hughes”.
“I could qualify that, by saying he’s a professional actor… and a professionally charming person.”
In the expert’s experience, it’s unusual for child sex offenders to have ‘satisfactory’ adult relationships. Hughes goes against the grain.
From all accounts, the former actor is ‘happily’ married to theatrical agent Robyn Gardiner. A devoted father to Jessica. Someone who used to be “as well-known as the Prime Minister”, according to his lawyer.
Prosecutors say he’s also a brazen predator, who believed he could do “whatever he liked to young girls”. A sex offender who was warned back in 1985… yet “continued to offend”.
I covered Hughes’ six-week trial almost every day from beginning to end.
As a court reporter for Seven News, it’s one of hundreds of sinister cases I follow throughout the year. Some are best not to mention at dinner parties. Others are literally the stuff of my nightmares. But this one felt close to home.
The Hughes family lived about 10 minutes from mine. Like us, they socialised with other families. Hosted children at their home. And went to dinner parties where Hughes – the on- and off-screen dad – indulged in his sexual interest in kids. Those girls could have been me, or any of my friends.
At court, I watched Hughes pull up in his lawyer’s Subaru. He walks confidently through clouds of smoke outside court, past a throng of cameras and through security. Marches down to courtroom LG4. Hears the most disgusting allegations against him. Then climbs into the witness box and flatly denies each one.
I scribbled notes and tapped away at my iPad as his victims took to the stand, to be quizzed by the Crown Prosecutor Gina O’Rourke. I felt their apprehension as they were cross-examined by the defence.
I stared at Hughes’ cool and calm wife, and wondered what she was thinking. I looked on in shock as two of his OWN RELATIVES gave evidence that they too were molested.
But it’s only now that the former star is being sentenced that his four victims have been invited to give ‘Victim Impact Statements’ – a more personal insight into the effects of his crimes.
Of course, there are the strong lines that hit us journos in the face. “I wish you nothing but misery”. “I hope that you will suffer for years to come”. But the parts that worm their way further into my brain/heart/stomach are the practical, heartbreaking examples of what it’s like to live with the heavy burden of abuse.
One woman (who was forced into obscene acts with Hughes while aged as young as six) told how she never wanted Santa to come into her room at night to leave presents.
Another, how she suffered from eating disorders for 12 years. How she’s never been able to let her kids go to sleepovers, or even school camps.