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Ex-Royal Navy officer accused of grabbing man’s genitals

A former Royal Navy officer accused of sexually assaulting nine young men – including one on the boat deck of HMS Cleopatra believed he was ‘unassailable’ due to his powerful position, a court heard today.  

Charles Howeson, 67, who later became a regional chairman of Royal bankers Coutts, is accused of sexually assaulting victims while serving with the Navy including groping a junior rating during a man overboard drill, a court was told.

A complaint to Navy officials was made but he was let off with a warning and went on to pursue a successful career in the service, it was said.  

Former Royal Navy commander Charles Howeson, pictured outside Plymouth Magistrates’ Court, is accused of various sexual offences involving young men during the 1980s and 1990s

Howeson, pictured, allegedly grabbed the genital area of a young man while serving on board HMS Cleopatra. The crew member reported the allegations and Howeson was later transferred

Howeson, pictured, allegedly grabbed the genital area of a young man while serving on board HMS Cleopatra. The crew member reported the allegations and Howeson was later transferred

Howeson was second-in-command on board HMS Cleopatra, pictured, at the time of the alleged groping incident. Bristol Crown Court heard Howeson allegedly continued to abuse young men after leaving the navy. The 67-year-old former officer denies all the charges

Howeson was second-in-command on board HMS Cleopatra, pictured, at the time of the alleged groping incident. Bristol Crown Court heard Howeson allegedly continued to abuse young men after leaving the navy. The 67-year-old former officer denies all the charges

He became a first lieutenant and second-in-command on a ship and felt he was ‘too powerful’ to be affected by complaints against him, a jury heard.

Howeson also went on to allegedly abuse young men after he left the Navy and went to work for an environmental organisation.

When five men complained they had been assaulted by Howeson, they were urged by the organisation not to take the matter to court, the jury was told.

He is on trial at Bristol Crown Court where he denies twelve historic serious sexual offences, including eleven of indecent assault and one of an attempted serious sexual assault.

The offences happened against nine alleged male victims.

Prosecutor Paul Dunkels said: ‘He was emboldened in his behaviour by the thought he could face off the allegations because of his powerful position.’

Mr Dunkels said that the allegations took place between December 1985 and August 1994,

He said they relate to three ‘wholly unrelated’ phases of Howeson’s life – the Navy, his private life and at the charity – but all tell a ‘similar story’.

‘It is the story of a man who was successful in his careers, both in and after the Royal Navy, and a man who had much to lose,’ said Mr Dunkels.

‘But nevertheless, he was seemingly confident that he was ‘unassailable’ because of his position of power.

‘Some of his victims complained at the time, but others felt their word would not be believed because of his status relative to them, or that he was ‘too powerful’ to be affected.’

The earliest charge was said to have taken place in December 1985, while Howeson, of Plymouth, was employed as an officer in the Royal Navy.

He allegedly groped a junior rating on the ship during a man overboard drill, touching the young man’s legs and lower back and his penis and testicles over his clothing.

The ‘shaken and upset’ victim reported the incident to a petty officer and the master-at-arms.

There was an investigation launched into Howeson’s behaviour following a similar complaint from a ship’s steward,

But the court heard the defendant was let off with a warning about his future behaviour – and went on to enjoy a successful Navy career.

It was also Howeson was granted a similar ‘escape’ during his subsequent employment at environmental organisation Groundwork Trust in Plymouth, where he was employed as executive director.

Six of his 12 victims were allegedly indecently assaulted by Howeson between April 1992 and February 1993, during his time working at the Trust.

The court heard he would take them individually to an isolated place and make up some excuse to lift them up – for instance, checking the cabling in the lights – before touching their penis and testicles, either inside or outside their clothing.

But in February 1993, when some workers realised they were not alone and complained to senior management, they were urged not to take the matter to court.

Mr Dunkels said: ‘Five separate employees individually reported what the defendant had done.

But they were told it was pointless taking the matter to court, as negative publicity could destroy the Groundwork Trust.

‘The Trust did not take the matter to police, and instead, five days after the complaints were made, the defendant resigned with immediate effect for ‘health reasons’.’

Mr Dunkels said Howeson’s behaviour only came to light two years ago, in 2015, when a separate victim came forward and accused Howeson of the one count of an attempted serious sexual assault.

The court heard that Howeson had laid on top of the young victim, who was under the age of 21, whilst pretending to teach him how to shoot an air rifle, whilst he was living at a previous address in Plymouth in 1987.

Howeson is alleged to have pulled down the victim’s trousers and attempted, unsuccessfully, to penetrate the teen’s anus with his penis.

He was arrested and quizzed by police in March 2016 for the charge, which he denied.

Jurors watched a video-recorded interview of the evidence given by the first complainant in the case, who served on HMS Cleopatra with the defendant.

In it, the man said he felt ‘uncomfortable’ around Howeson, and ‘kept out of his way’ before the night he was indecently assaulted.

He said the older man was ‘over-familiar’ and would stand too close or touch his hand, but he did not report it because he was worried it would sound petty.

The man said he was called to Howeson’s cabin one evening and Howeson said he wanted to do a man overboard drill, which he said was ‘silly’ because such drills were usually planned ahead and not carried out at night.

He said he walked to the boat deck where the dummy for drills was kept, but Howeson did not help him try to move the heavy dummy.

‘He just seemed to be transfixed on me,’ he said.

‘He was looking at me, he was just staring at me.

‘I don’t know what he thought was going to happen.’

The man said Howeson, who he described as ‘flamboyant and different’ and as ‘having money’, groped his genitals over his clothes.

He said he went to a senior officer to complain and a helicopter landed on HMS Cleopatra later that night and two members of the special investigation bureau came on board and took a written statement from him.

The man said he was told ‘somebody with a blanket or towel’ over their head was taken off.

He said he did not see Howeson on the ship after that night.

He said he thought Howeson would face a court martial, but heard nothing afterwards and that it ‘was not handled properly’.

‘I just wonder at the thought process of allowing somebody who has been accused of an assault not to be heard by other people (in a court or tribunal),’ he said.

He added that he had ‘honestly believed the Navy would take care of me’, despite the fact it was the word of a junior crew member against a senior one.

The case was adjourned to Wednesday.  

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