Top prosecutor defends celebrity sex abuse cases despite acquittals

LONDON Thu Feb 20, 2014 11:28am EST

LONDON Feb 20 (Reuters) - The director of Britain's prosecution service has defended the decision to bring sexual assault cases against ageing celebrities, despite two high-profile acquittals that have led to accusations that the investigation is a "witch-hunt".

A string of celebrities have been accused of rape and sexual assualt as part of an investigation launched in the wake of the 2011 death of Jimmy Savile, one of Britain's biggest TV stars in the 1970s and 1980s, after revelations that he sexually assualted some 300 victims, mainly children, over six decades of abuse.

The BBC and the police were widely criticised for failing to act earlier, prompting commentators to say that the police were trying to atone for past mistakes.

Writing in the The Times on Thursday, Alison Saunders, Director of Public Prosecutions, vowed to keep bringing cases of historic sexual assault to court wherever possible.

"The public would be horrified if we did not prosecute because a complaint came many years after the event," she said.

When Operation Yewtree was launched by London police after Savile's death, hundreds of people came forward with allegations of sexual abuse by a number of British celebrities.

Now that two of them, radio DJ Dave Lee Travis and soap star William Roache, have been cleared of the charges against them, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is eager to show that does not mean the cases should never have reached court.

"So long as our criminal justice system is working effectively, we will continue to see acquittals in these types of cases. But we are also seeing convictions," Saunders said.

Some celebrities have voiced concern the investigation has become a witch-hunt with innocent people linked to paedophile Savile but never charged.

Travis, 68, was cleared of a string of sexual offences against women over three decades on Feb. 13, while Coronation Street star Roache, 81 was cleared of historic rape and indecent assualt charges a week earlier, although his arrest was not directly linked to the Savile investigation.

A lawyer for Travis declined to comment on the subject.

Saunders dismissed claims that the police and prosecutors were attempting to rectify past mistakes, saying they had only brought cases to court where there was sufficient evidence for a jury trial.

She added: "To those who say recent high-profile acquittals show that police and prosecutors are overcompensating for past failings, I say quite simply that we are not."

A UK charity for rape victims, Rape Crisis, described claims that Operation Yewtree had become a witch-hunt as "baseless" and "nonsensical".

"I wonder whether we're now experiencing a bit of a backlash, in terms of empathy or sympathy fatigue," said Katie Russell, a spokeswoman for Rape Crisis.

More celebrities are due to go on trial for sexual offences in connection with Operation Yewtree later this year, including celebrity publicist Max Clifford and British-based Australian entertainer Rolf Harris, 83.

(Reporting by Julia Fioretti; editing by Stephen Addison)