BY STEPHEN TROTT
The trial of the Dean of Lincoln began on 17 July, in a large auditorium at the Lawn, the former mental hospital beside the city wall, where public hangings used to take place. The trial generated enormous interest in the media, to whom the prospect of a senior churchman in the dock, accused of adultery, must have seemed like a win on the national lottery. Long before the doors opened, the television cameras and reporters were assembled, interviewing everything that moved in the vicinity of the court, hoping for early pictures of the chief protagonists, and of the witnesses.
Along each side of the makeshift courtroom inside – folding tables covered roughly with green baize – the diocesan officials had set up long lines of tables for the press, which were immediately filled by journalists ranging from heavyweight religious affairs correspondents to clones from the gutter press, licking their lips in anticipation of the treat which was in store. But there were indications already that some of those present, even the hard-bitten reporters from the tabloids, were finding the scenario a little disturbing. The acting Chancellor (a circuit judge) was sitting in full wig and black court robes, being addressed by two senior QCs, also in wig and sub-fusc, attended by the Registrar of the diocese, also in court robes.
WHAT SORT OF COURT?
Was this a church court? Was it a criminal trial, and if so, why was it a criminal trial for an allegation of a moral nature? Why was it being held in a conference room? Some of those who had come only to report on the sensational aspect of the evidence began to ask around as to what the verdict might actually mean, and wanted to know what authority the Church had for bringing the full majesty of the criminal law to bear on a clergyman accused of adultery.
The consistory court retains a criminal jurisdiction in such matters under the 1963 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure, which has the full force of English law as an Act of Parliament. The judge is not appointed by the Crown, however, or by the Lord Chancellor, but by the bishop of the diocese. The bishop can even retain the right in some circumstances to sit himself as judge in faculty proceedings, although the late Chancellor Newsom very wisely warned potential chancellors against accepting office where the bishop proposes to write such terms into the letters patent by which he appoints the chancellor.
Section 28 of the Measure directs that the procedure of the trial is to be the same, as far as possible, as “the trial of a person by a court of assize exercising criminal jurisdiction” and the same rules of evidence apply. (The courts of assize have since been replaced by the Crown Court). All of this legal formality was apparent at Lincoln, despite the ad hoc surroundings in which it was conducted.
It was of course an extremely uncomfortable experience for the Dean’s accuser, Miss Freestone, and for the Dean himself, as they gave evidence and were then cross-examined by prominent barristers skilled at extracting the truth from criminals in regular Crown Court cases. The press took down all the intimate details of the claims made by Miss Freestone, as they were elicited by her lawyer, and examined again by the Dean’s counsel. They were sordid and explicit descriptions of sexual acts, nothing illegal but gravely immoral as a matter between Christians, if true.
SHAME AND EMBARRASSMENT
To hear such things stated in court was unpleasant enough. There were many ordinary people there, who had undoubtedly never attended a criminal trial, come to support the Dean or Miss Freestone. A number of clergy were present too, to observe a consistory court at work, only the third occasion since 1963 as far as anyone could recall. As Miss Freestone gave her evidence, a painful wave of shame and embarrassment swept across the court, that such matters should be spoken about in public, let alone by Christians. Her words were written down eagerly by the media, and available to the whole nation the following day in every newspaper, including those who ought to have managed a greater sense of proportion and human dignity.
The general public, which takes a crude and prurient interest in sexual improprieties, judges the Church of England (and the Christian faith in general) by its treatment of sinners. Most of those who think of Christians as hypocrites do not actually know what the Bible teaches about morality, still less about repentance and forgiveness, but they know enough to spot a fallen cleric when they see one. Many will have found enough ammunition in the week’s press reports to sustain them in their ignorance for the rest of their lives. They will have read the accusations, verbatim, in the daily newspapers. The Sunday Smut will recount it all once again for those who do not read daily papers. The verdict of acquittal will make no practical difference to the impression formed in people’s minds. Here, once again, is an example of Christians preaching against immorality in public while practising it in private, and getting found out.
To those concerned with questions of justice, the bringing of such a case in such a court was equally scandalous. The Dean himself was given the opportunity in a television programme on the evening after the trial ended, to express his view that behind the charges which had been brought against him lay a dismal history of intrigues and jealousies within the cathedral close, involving the residentiary canons and the Bishop of Lincoln. It was not the first time that the bishop and the chapter had been involved in damaging legal proceedings. Many of the issues raised by the scandal over the Australian exhibition of the cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta remain unresolved, with several of the personalities concerned still in post despite the bishop’s invitation at the time to consider their position.
THE LAST OF ITS KIND?
Canon Alan Hawker was in court on the first day, to observe the trial as part of the process of examining the disciplinary procedures of the Church of England, as chairman of a General Synod working group. Hopefully no more such cases will be brought to trial before his work is completed and fresh legislation has replaced the consistory court with a better system of justice. How can justice be done when the bishop not only appoints the judge, but decides whether or not to bring a case to trial, authorises a complainant to bring the case, and has a significant role in sentencing and the eventual career of those found guilty? Justice has to be impartial, and the pastoral relationship which a bishop should have with his clergy simply can not co-exist with a judicial role. Any future tribunal has to be a national body, preferably appointed by the Lord Chancellor.
OVERDUE FOR REFORM
Such a reform should not mean that the Church goes soft on offenders, of whom there are actually a tiny number, despite the trying limitation of having only human beings available for ordination as Christian ministers. In fact, it ought to make it possible for action to be taken against those who rely on the assumption that the consistory court will not be used against them, because of the enormous scandal and expense which it generates. Civil proceedings before a tribunal are rather less sensational than a criminal trial, and less costly. No other employer can arrange a criminal trial for an employee who has breached professional standards. It is inappropriate for the Church any longer to treat its ministers in such a fashion.
Anyone with any doubts should consider the Lincoln trial. Not only has it cost a considerable amount of money, which would have been increased substantially had an appeal been necessary. It has been traumatic beyond description for the participants, and permanently damaging both to them and to the life and work of the Church in England. Justice of a kind has no doubt been done, with the Dean acquitted by means of a procedure which involved some of the country’s top lawyers, but one which is cumbersome and almost calculated to attract the unwanted attention of every newspaper in the land. One may doubt whether he will receive anyone’s apology.
Worst of all, the trial represents a colossal public relations blunder which need never have taken place. The fact that there had only been two such trials previously under the Measure indicate that most bishops wisely deal with such charges privately, as the Measure permits, without ever coming to court. In all the circumstances, we are entitled at least to receive an explanation from the Bishop of Lincoln as to why he chose to put his Dean on trial.
Stephen Trott is Rector of Pitsford with Boughton in Peterborough Diocese