Could indictments flow from tomorrow’s report on Jonathan Fletcher?

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With the lessons learned review into the Jonathan Fletcher abuse scandal due to go public tomorrow, this question comes to the fore: what, if anything, will London’s Metropolitan Police do about it?

The Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight, which has compiled the report, announced in February that “the review has been of interest to the Metropolitan Police and the discussions with them are ongoing in relation to this”.

If the Met were to charge Fletcher, what law would they accuse him of having broken?  Would he be charged with ‘misconduct in public office’? That, together with offences of indecent assault, was what the serial church abuser, Bishop Peter Ball, was convicted of in 2015. 

Commenting on the case in 2016 the Ecclesiastical Law Society, which publishes The Ecclesiastical Law Journal, said: “In October 2015 Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Gloucester and, prior to that, Bishop of Lewes, was sentenced to 32 months for misconduct in public office and 15 months for a series of indecent assaults, the sentences to run concurrently. Two charges of indecently assaulting two boys in their early teens were allowed to lie on the file.”

An ELS working party was responding to a consultation paper on ‘Reforming Misconduct in Public Office’ by the Law Commission, a statutory body which reviews the law in England and Wales. The LC consultation paper noted that the status test for a public office holder “can give rise to arbitrary results and that the reasoning of the court in Ball that ‘Bishops of the Church of England are in public office because of the unique position of the Church in relation to the state’ means that ‘no minister of any other faith (regardless of seniority), including the Church in Wales, could have been prosecuted for misconduct in public office for the same activities as Ball’.”

Not being a Bishop, would Fletcher, 78, pass the ‘status test’ for a charge of misconduct in public office? Fletcher was vicar of Emmanuel Wimbledon, a Church of England proprietary chapel in south-west London from 1982 until his retirement in 2012. Emmanuel commissioned the Thirtyone:eight review in December 2019.

Speaking in June 2019 at the Evangelical Ministry Assembly in London, organised by preacher training provider the Proclamation Trust, Emmanuel’s safeguarding office, Sarah Hall, revealed that the police had been informed of Fletcher’s activities in early 2017 but decided to take no action.

Fletcher was a PT trustee from its foundation in 1986 to 2000. Chairing the EMA safeguarding session which detailed some of Fletcher’s abuses, PT chairman Canon Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Oxford, said: “I am sure a lessons learned review will be necessary in due course.”

Southwark Diocese, which covers the part of south London where Fletcher was living in retirement, removed his Permission to Officiate in early 2017 after conducting ‘an independent safeguarding assessment’ on him. Southwark concluded that “whilst there was no evidence from the assessment that Jonathan Fletcher posed a significant sexual or physical risk to children there was a risk of him behaving towards vulnerable adults who may be seeking his spiritual guidance in a manner which may be harmful”.

If the Met does charge Fletcher, he remains under English law innocent of any alleged criminality unless found guilty after due process in open court (unless legitimate reporting restictions are imposed). Any amateur sleuths on Twitter or elsewhere on social media who prejudiced his chances of a fair trial by assuming his guilt could find themselves in contempt of court. Trained journalists who have learned to negotiate ‘strict liability contempt’ understand how expensive a mistake can be.

The Thirtyone:eight report is poised to reveal the extent of Fletcher’s abuses and the devastation he caused to his victims. But if he is charged with criminal conduct, Christians of all people should be wanting to see that he gets a fair trial. Arbitrary justice does not play well for humanity and in countries where it takes hold Christians in particular tend to suffer under it.

Julian Mann is an evangelical journalist based in the UK and author of Christians in the Community of the Dome