Australian soap star cleared of child molesting convictions

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Actress Maggie Kirkpatrick, famous for her role as a sadistic prison warden nicknamed "The Freak" in an Australian soap opera, broke down in tears on Tuesday after a judge overturned her convictions for molesting a 14-year-old devoted fan of the series more than 30 years ago.

The series, set in a women's prison, was known as "Prisoner" in Australia, and "Prisoner: Cell Block H" or "Caged Women" overseas. It ran from 1979 to 1986.

Kirkpatrick, 74, whose character Joan "The Freak" Ferguson would molest inmates with the excuse of conducting body searches, was convicted in the Melbourne Magistrates Court in August on two counts of indecently assaulting the troubled girl in Kirkpatrick's Melbourne home in the 1984 and one count of gross indecency.

Her appeal against those convictions was upheld by a Victorian County Court on Tuesday.

Kirkpatrick, a grandmother of two, sobbed as she hugged supporters after learning her convictions were overturned.

"It's been rather difficult, but I'm very happy with the result," she told reporters outside court.

Sydney-based Kirkpatrick met the victim at a Melbourne psychiatric hospital where the girl had been treated for substance abuse and a personality disorder. The victim, now a 45-year-old mother of three, first went to police in 2013.

Kirkpartrick told her appeal hearing on Monday that she had invited the girl home for dinner to give a disturbed person "a little home life."

"I saw it as a kindness," Kirkpatrick said.

Judge Geoffrey Chettle on Tuesday said that in 1984 the complainant was "clearly vulnerable and unstable," and that she was a careful and consistent witness, but her evidence was not independently supported, the judge said.

Chettle said Kirkpatrick's reason for inviting the young girl for dinner without a chaperone was consistent with character evidence that she is a caring woman who had helped other young people. The judge said he was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the offending had occurred.

Kirkpatrick also appeared in the Australian television series "All Saints," ''Pizza," ''Blue Heelers," ''Hey Dad!" and "Water Rats."

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