- This essay comes from Proof – the magazine of the Justice Gap. Out now. You can buy here.
Active encouragement is being given to adults who claim to remember, from even a half century ago, any inappropriate behaviour which took place by a teacher or carer and, to quote the former DPP, Keir Starmer, ‘these complainants must be believed’. Initially, barely a week passed without someone in the public eye being arrested, amidst maximum publicity, of course. It wasn’t just the famous who were being targeted. Hundreds of ordinary folk had their collar felt in the early hours of the morning.
In 1769, William Blackstone wrote ‘the law holds it that it is better that 10 guilty persons go free than one innocent person suffers’. Yet, in our supposedly democratic society, there are a myriad of innocent people who have been arrested, charged and imprisoned on the basis of unproven complaints.
But, in modern Britain complainants ‘must be believed’ when it comes to alleged sex abuse. If this is the message from the top of our legal profession, then is it any wonder that more and more innocent individuals are being arrested and, in many cases, unfairly punished?
And when innocent people are punished and suffer the wrath of society, it is not only that person who has to suffer but also their family and close friends. It is impossible to express fully in words the horrors that one has to endure when accused of child abuse and only those who have experienced it will know fully the pain.
When I stood in the dock, in a glass cage, and heard the jury utter the words ‘Not Guilty’, after less than 40 minutes’ deliberation – I was later told that the jury had made their decisions within 15 minutes – it brought to an end a two year living nightmare.
Accused of minor sexual offences of 30 years previously, I had endured nearly two years of hell that at times had brought me to the cusp of despair. Not only had I suffered the stress of a very public seven day trial, I had also witnessed my life being torn apart before my very eyes.
I lost my job, my biggest passion, as well as my home and community, my reputation and my peace of mind.
I was forced to endure the terror of simultaneous dawn raids on both my home in Suffolk and my flat in West London. In the early hours of December 18 2012, I was awoken at my Suffolk house by the arrival of a group of local police officers, one of whom read me my rights as the others ransacked all my possessions.
I quickly realised my London flat was being searched at the same time. They took away everything that was personal to me. They proceeded to look at every email I’d ever written, every photo I’d ever taken, read every phone message I’d ever sent or received. In short, my life was invaded.
The allegations which brought about my arrest related to a former pupil of St George’s School, near Stowmarket, where I had taught for two years in the early 1980s. After my arrest, precisely 672 days later, a jury decided almost immediately that there was no truth in this person’s allegations, nor those of the accuser’s close friend, nor an ex-pupil of the school where I have been teaching for the past 30 years.
The allegations had ranged from ‘checking me inappropriately after a shower’ to ‘chasing me around a packed day room trying to pinch my bottom’.
I, an ex-teacher of over 30 years and now a BBC reporter, who has appeared on various national television and radio shows, have the task of piecing my life back together – or what is left of it.
Am I angry? I am angry and frustrated that I’ve had two years of my life taken from me. I firmly believe that there should be a maximum limit of three months on bail and, if the police want to extend the time, they should have to seek permission from a judge, giving good reasons.
The ‘Magna Carta’ states: ‘Justice delayed is justice denied’ – and 672 days on police bail is nothing short of a punishment in itself. I would describe it as 672 days of humiliation. But, rather than wallowing in self pity, what is of greater concern to me is I want this and other lessons to be learned.
I don’t want people to feel sorry for me and think it’s another sob story. Something good has to come from this. Changes need to be made in how these incredibly sensitive matters are handled. Of course, children who have been the victims of abuse need to be able to feel they can come forward and be listened to. This is one of the marvellous things to have come about in this country during recent times.
We, as a society, are leading the way in child abuse investigations. But, at the same time, we need the accused to be supported and treated fairly and justly as well. No one should automatically be presumed guilty, as I was, and have his or her good name sullied forever just because of some unfounded allegations. Once the police had decided to arrest me, they were going to do anything they could then to prosecute me.
As I said, the nightmare ordeal started when police hammered on my door on that fateful day, one week before Christmas, 2012. In the aftermath of the Savile scandal, a former pupil, who is still covered by anonymity, came forward and claimed that some 30 years earlier I watched him in the showers after PE lessons and went on to touch him, under the guise of checking to see he was dry.
I’ve never taught PE, never taught the complainant and have no memory of the pupil whatsoever (other than the fact he happened to be a pupil in the school at the same time). From the outset I maintained that what he had to say was, at best, the result of mistaken identity and, at worst, a calculated, malicious lie.
When it finally came to trial in late October 2014, at Ipswich Crown Court, dozens of character witnesses paid tribute to me, saying, among a host of superlatives, that I was “flamboyant”, “inspirational”, an excellent practitioner”, ”one of the outstanding schoolmaster of his generation”, and ”considered by most pupils as the best teacher in the school”. More importantly, it was evident to all that the complainants had been telling lies.
But, despite being immediately cleared, I have lost faith in many things: the notion of being presumed not guilty until proven otherwise; a system which can keep someone’s life on hold for nigh on two years, as the powers-that-be trawl for other complainants or any pieces of innuendo they can find; ‘no win, no fee’ solicitors, who fuel the sorts of lies and deceit that resulted in me being dragged through the courts; and the adversarial method of police investigation, whereby they take a standpoint from the outset and refuse to budge, deliberately disregarding any evidence which suggests anything contrary to their case.
The police were not interested in uncovering the truth, only in securing a conviction.
How could a pretty obvious farrago of fabrication ever have ended up in court in the first place? From the outset the police adopted a hostile, one-sided approach, raking through every facet of my life, searching for something – anything – to corroborate the allegations. Instead of approaching the case with open-mindedness, they seemed determined on pursuing a guilty path and nothing would alter their predetermined course.
I wish they had looked from the outset at the unlikelihood of these allegations being possible. The very first thing I said at interview was that I had never taught PE. I was ignored.
If the police feel there’s not enough evidence to secure a conviction – in my case, no evidence – they go trawling through the accused’s life and try to find something/anything to sway the jury. It’s all about prejudice.
I had every aspect of my personal life raked through. That, in itself, was a trauma to be endured. Those 2012 dawn raids were horrific. I had to spend the best part of 12 hours locked in a cell. Imagine the police barging into your home first thing in the morning and ransacking it, with the added shame of having to wash and dress in front of a policeman while this is going on, before being escorted to the police station to be fingerprinted and to have your DNA taken.
These allegations were made after a certain Derek Slade, the former head teacher of St George’s was jailed (in 2010) for physically and sexually abusing pupils. I believe my media profile made me a target and the fact that I was perceived to be a wealthy man.
I understand the police have a job to do, and I have respect for that. I also understand that, in the wake of Savile, they are under a huge amount of pressure. They seem to be criticised if they don’t pursue certain cases and criticised if they do others. Since late 2012, they have been caught between a rock and a hard place. Of course, transgressors must be brought to justice and this is the police’s difficult job.
But this can’t disguise the fact they consider educated, professional people as easy targets. We will cooperate in any way possible. We’ll be respectful, answer politely and fully all their questions.
This didn’t assist me one iota. It would have served me better to have said nothing. The more information I gave them, the more they tried to use it to enhance their own case.
In order to improve the present system, investigations must be carried out in a balanced manner, with an open-minded willingness to investigate claims from both parties.
The scales of justice seem to have been tipped. Complainants are believed almost automatically. Are we prepared to convict innocent people just so we can show the public there are more and more guilty verdicts in our courts? And how can an allegation, totally unfounded, be put forward as evidence?
My main complainant, now in his 40s, originally approached the police, after consulting ‘no win, no fee’ solicitors, with an allegation against me early in 2012. This despite the fact that when he was interviewed about other matters to do with the school in 2011, my name wasn’t mentioned with regard to any abuse. He was told that the police would not be taking the matter further. He then returned months later and embellished his statement. This embellishment led to my arrest. In the words of an official police document (which I have read) his embellishment became ‘further evidence’.
The compensation culture is largely to blame for false allegations. When you have anonymity, coupled with ‘no win no fee’ and a potential pay-out, liars have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.
Making friends was nigh on impossible during my two years of hell: whether you’re innocent or not, as soon as you’re arrested, your name goes out publicly. Whilst the people who wrongly and maliciously accused me of these acts can hide behind anonymity, my name was published on TV, radio and the Internet immediately (illegally, under the Education Act 2011), and in newspapers as soon as I was charged.
Even though we proved there was not a scintilla of truth in these charges, even now, if I met someone and gave them my name or my personal card and they subsequently looked me up on the internet, the first thing they would read is: ‘This person has been cleared of child abuse.’ I’ve been cleared, yes, but there’s still that smell of it. It will remain there for the rest of my life. I’ll never be rid of it.
Reports on the case remain on various search engines, and I don’t think they should. If someone is found not guilty, as I was, then, as a rule of thumb, all internet records should be deleted.
And then we come to the trolls. I was described online as ‘very dangerous’. I had a former pupil of St. George’s saying I should be castrated, although his language wasn’t quite as polite. I had to face a barrage of abuse through email, texts, Facebook and via internet trolls. On one website a former pupil had written, ‘Did you know my old tutor is a paedophile?’
The case took two years to come to trial and for much of that time I spent my days hunting down my own witnesses and endeavouring, almost single-handedly, to prove my own innocence. My (union) solicitor was busy with a multitude of such cases. It was down to me alone to do battle with the police incident room team, who were trying tirelessly to find anyone who’d be prepared to back up the allegations against me. Someone who has been accused of a crime dating back more than 30 years has a devil of a job to prove that he or she is not guilty, especially with only limited resources. It was down to me.
During this exhausting process I visited some ‘dark places’. My naturally bubbly, open personality became more and more introverted. My natural self-confidence gradually evaporated. I could fully understand why the teacher from St. George’s who had been arrested before me had committed suicide.
There was even a moment when I myself felt suicidal. During those awful 672 days on police bail, when I was feeling at my lowest ebb, both the Disclosure and Barring Service and then the National College of Teaching and Leadership came wading in to inform me that they would be waiting in the wings to decide what action I should face once the trial had concluded, regardless of its outcome. It felt like I was prostrate on the floor being repeatedly kicked. Sure enough, both started their own investigation after the court case, repeating by letter to me the offences of which I had been cleared.
I am now seriously considering legal action against my two St. George’s accusers, whatever the cost. I am frustrated that the authorities have not arrested them and seem to have no intention to do so.
I will not return to the classroom after – if I say so myself – 35 glorious years. Being a teacher was my biggest passion, and I like to think that of the thousands of pupils whom I have taught, the vast majority are appreciative that, while I can be quite a fiery character on occasions, I enriched their young lives by my expertise in the classroom, my total commitment to school life after hours, and my endless supply of jokes.
A few unscrupulous individuals cannot erase all that I have achieved. And, of course, I am sorry that so many youngsters had their academic careers badly interrupted by my arrest in 2012.
Society must take note, so we lessen the chances of innocent people’s lives being destroyed unnecessarily:
- the length of bail must surely have a strict time limit;
- judges must have the confidence to reject weak cases before the trial process is reached;
- we must cease the practice of putting defendants in a glass cage in the courtroom;
- most importantly, the police must stop their adversarial approach to investigations. Surely, in any fair, just democratic society we have a fundamental right to impartial, balanced police investigations. The police have to run their investigations totally independent of the Crown Prosecution Service. They must not take sides from the outset but must weigh up ALL the evidence they uncover.
In the meantime, I would say to anyone accused unjustly of historical abuse, always remember that the truth is your best ally. It is certainly what kept me going during my darkest moments.
This articles was first run on the Justice Gap on June 15, 2015
Simon has taught French and Latin for over 30 years. He has been a presenter for BBC Radio Suffolk and featured in Channel 4’s That’ll Teach ‘Em