Typical English village, except for the paedophile moving back home

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IN A scene typical of any English village, a group of carefree children laughed and joked this weekend as they rode their bikes outside the village post office in Sonning Common. But this group is unlikely to be allowed out on their own for very much longer.

In a couple of weeks, Rhys Hughes, a predatory paedophile with a 30-year history of abusing children, will be released from prison. He intends to return to his house in the scenic Oxfordshire village from where he terrorised children, including a five-year-old girl who lived nearby. The girl, now 15, still lives in the village.

And because the 65-year-old retired gardener was sentenced three months before the introduction of the 1991 Criminal Justice Act he cannot be made to conform to any supervision, in spite of recent changes in the law. He can come and go as he likes from the house he still owns.

The imminent return of Hughes, who was sentenced to ten years in 1992 for the rape and buggery of nine children, male and female, between 1957 and 1991, has caused consternation in the village.

Geraldine Pendry, who has four children aged between four and 13, said: "No sentence is long enough for someone who does that to children."

She believes the paedophile's presence would drive children off the streets. "The atmosphere here is going to change," she said. "Mothers are going to be a lot more cautious after he is let out."

Inevitably, some parents predict there will be vigilante action. Donna Crowley, 31, out shopping with her three-year-old daughter Amelia, said: "He will be persecuted. People will drive him out and rightly so. I don't think he has got any right to be here."

The case is likely to fuel the debate over how to deal with serial paedophiles when they have completed their jail sentences.

Other notorious paedophiles released without supervision, including Sidney Cooke and Robert Oliver, have requested secure accommodation from the authorities out of fear for their own safety.

But Hughes, who refused treatment for his offending behaviour while in prison, has declined any such offers and is adamant that he will return home.

Michael Biddulph a spokesman for Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Probation Service, said: "Until and unless he asks for protection nobody has any way of acting until an offence has been committed. "We think it is tremendously unsatisfactory and we have deep sympathy for the young victims family." In the meantime, police are taking every precaution to minimise the risk posed by Hughes. A network of child safety houses is being set up at vetted homes in the village so that youngsters can run to them for help if they feel threatened. The houses will have stickers in the windows so that children know they will be safe. Police will visit local schools at the beginning of term to advise pupils of the dangers and the measures they should take to avoid being harmed.

An emergency help-line, staffed 24 hours a day by female officers is being set up for the victim so that she can alert police to the first sign of danger.

Carol Viney, chair of the parish council, said that although villagers had always considered Hughes "one sandwich short of a picnic" they had been appalled by his crimes. "We are all very concerned be-cause we are all mothers," she said. "But the police could not have been more co-operative."

Some mothers were worried they would not be able to recognise the paedophile. Sarah Webster, 27, walking with her baby son, Jordan, said: "I want to know what he looks like. I don't want to be standing talking to him in the street, passing the time of day."

Like many paedophiles, Hughes developed a modus operandi for luring his victims. His tactic was to "groom" children, slowly befriending them before inviting them back to his house where he attacked them.

Police found obscene pictures of the paedophile with his victims in his home.

Hughes is one of at least six dangerous paedophiles being released without supervision. The two already freed - Cooke and Oliver - were part of a gang involved in the sexual abuse and manslaughter of 14-year-old Jason Swift in 1985.

Their release caused great controversy and the men were hounded by tabloid newspapers and vigilante actions. Oliver left prison last September and was chased from town to town by angry crowds until he sought refuge in a Sussex police station.

He has since been moved to a medium secure psychiatric unit in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. The public cost of keeping Oliver since his release has now exceeded pounds 100,000.

Cooke was released in April, after 11 years in jail, and has since been held in police cells, first in London and then at an undisclosed location in Avon and Somerset. Even rumours of his presence have been enough to trigger angry public demonstrations.

Another of Cooke's gang,Stephen Barrell, 37, from Dagenham, Essex, has vanished after he was released early from his 10-year sentence.