A FORMER Royal Navy officer and council leader who was a pillar of the community "used his power and presence" to groom and sexually assault his victims over a 21-year period, a jury has heard.

Churchgoer Richard Pallister is on trial charged with 36 historical sex abuse allegations which included children as young as 12.

Pallister was the leader of South Somerset District Council between 2011 and 2018 and an air traffic controller at the Royal Naval Air Station base at Yeovilton.

Taunton Crown Court heard that the 73-year-old, of East Chinnock, denies all the allegations which date back to 1983 and 2004 and involves three children and a woman.

Prosecutor Charles Row opened the case against Pallister, known as Ric, - and said he was a "big strong man" who forced his unwanted sexual attention on four victims who described him as "relentless".

He said that Pallister, who was a Lib Dem councillor and a churchwarden and sidesman, was a "big personality" who was enthusiastic and energetic in organising events.

But Mr Row said he was a "bit overpowering, he was physically big and strong and invaded personal space".

He said Pallister would take people's faces in his hands and kiss them on the lips and embrace bodies.

Mr Row said it became the norm and people would say: "Oh that's just Ric."

But he told the jury:"It was to be a front for more sinister behaviour."

Mr Row said: "This was a man, on the face of it, who was a trusted pillar of the community, a force of nature, a local character."

He said Pallister "used his power and presence to take advantage of four complainants in this case".

He added Pallister "consciously and deliberately forced himself on them with unwanted sexual attention" and the "more risky the behaviour the better" and he was able to do it in plain sight of other people.

Mr Row said Pallister "groomed, manipulated, controlled and coerced" the victims and the defendant used mind games against his victims who had insecurities and were vulnerable leaving them with mental scars to this day.

The jury was told that Pallister faces 33 charges of indecent assault and three counts of gross indecency with a child.

The allegations include kissing the victims on the mouth, touching their bottoms, breasts and intimate areas.

Married Pallister told police there was some sexual touching with one girl when she was aged over 16 and that was consensual.

And he said he had a long running sexual affair with the woman who claims he sexually assaulted her on many occasions.

One victim, now a grown woman, told the jury Pallister abused her on multiple occasions "when I was a kid" and it had a significant impact on her life.

She told the jury it was "very deliberate sexual touching" but added:"I did not stop it."

She accepted under cross examination that she co-operated to keep it quiet.

She said Pallister was a "persuasive man" but denied she found it an "erotic highly charged sexual encounter", tearfully telling the jury: "I did not find it erotic."

The trial, which is expected to last two weeks, continues.