Screams of anguish and frustration filled a courtroom as jurors watched vulnerable patients at a specialist care facility being tormented and goaded by staff.

An undercover reporter filmed the harrowing footage over several weeks after securing a job as a carer at Whorlton Hall to investigate allegations of abusive behaviour.

Olivia Davies recorded more than 200 hours of covert footage showing some of the staff tormenting and aggravating some of the patients.

The work of the undercover reporter revealed a catalogue of abuse and ill-treatment of vulnerable residents at a specialist care facility, near Barnard Castle, which has now closed down.

Nine former members of staff at the privately-run hospital were initially accused of launching a campaign of bullying and harassment against a number of residents.

Peter Bennett, Matthew Banner, Ryan Fuller and John Sanderson, were all convicted of a variety of charges following a lengthy trial at Teesside Crown Court.

Five of their co-accused – Sarah Banner, Karen McGhee, Darren Lawton, Niall Mellor, and Sabah Mahmood – were cleared of all the charges they faced.

The secret footage was used in a BBC Panorama documentary exposing the psychological abuse of vulnerable residents with learning disabilities or autism.

Passing suspended sentences for the four defendants, Judge Chris Smith told them that their behaviour had left the victims and their families devastated by the abuse.

“Offences of this type are inherently serious,” he said. “They involve a fundamental breach of the trust which should exist between the patient and the carer, and of the wider trust which should exist between those who entrust their loved ones to care and those who provide it.

“Each of you must have been acutely aware of the need for the families of patients at Whorlton Hall to be able to feel confidence in the care their loved ones would receive. And the undermining of broader public confidence in the care system caused by this sort of offending is another manifestation of the harm caused by this offending.

“But it must not be overlooked that - at their very core - offences of this type inevitably involve harm being directly caused to a vulnerable victim.”

The offending had been brought to light after being captured on camera by a reporter working for the BBC’s ‘Panorama’ programme, who posed undercover as a support worker at the hospital in late 2018 and early 2019.

The court heard how one female patient had been threatened with being assigned male carers against her expressed wishes, even when sufficient female staff were available.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Peter BennettPeter Bennett (Image: The Northern Echo)

Bennett was caught on camera causing one resident obvious distress by talking about balloons in her presence and repeatedly manipulating them into making a snapping noise.

On another occasion the judge said the defendant sought to gratuitously belittle her communication problems by speaking to her in French and then you intimidated her by advancing towards her in an aggressive way.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Matthew BannerMatthew Banner (Image: The Northern Echo)

The judge said Banner set about causing the same woman unnecessary distress by referencing balloons.

“And with her preference for female carers well in mind, you deliberately goaded her by threatening her with an increasing number of male carers. It was a cruel and uncaring thing to do and done whilst ignoring the obvious distress it was causing her,” he added.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Ryan FullerRyan Fuller (Image: The Northern Echo)

Addressing Fuller, the judge said: “You were captured by the undercover reporter's hidden camera persistently tormenting another patient with repeated challenges to a fight.

“So far as he is concerned, the level of impact of your offending upon him is impossible to discern but the impact upon his family has been substantial; they have been left with feelings of guilt and sorrow and betrayal.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: John SandersonJohn Sanderson (Image: The Northern Echo)

Dealing with Sanderson’s charge, the judge said: “The man was already in a distressed state yet you set about quite unnecessarily disturbing his personal possessions. In frustration, and as a natural consequence of his increased level of agitation, he struck out at you.

“You responded with patronising and sexist language, and, by a combination of words and actions, you threatened him with serious violence.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: The four former staff members caught on secret recordings ill-treating residents at Whorlton HallThe four former staff members caught on secret recordings ill-treating residents at Whorlton Hall (Image: CROWN PROSECUTION SERVICE)

Bennett, 54, of Redworth Road, Billingham, was told his four-month sentence would be suspended for 18 months and ordered him to carry out 280 hours of unpaid work.

While 44-year-old Banner, formerly of Newton Aycliffe but now of no fixed abode, was given and identical sentence.

Fuller, 28, of Deerbolt Bank, Barnard Castle, was told his three-month sentence would be suspended for 15 months and ordered to carry out 240 hours of unpaid work.

And 26-year-old Sanderson, of Cambridge Avenue, Willington, County Durham, was told his six-week sentence would be suspended for 12 months and ordered to carry out 200 hours of unpaid work.