Who would be a teacher?
Geoff* had only been teaching for a couple of years, and his energy was infectious as he lead his gaggling group of A level students across St Peter’s Square. Well liked, highly regarded by colleagues, pupils and parents. Talented and dedicated. And a family man, with children of his own. Of course he was young and inexperienced, so he made mistakes, but it meant he could relate to his students and get the best out of them. His own youthful enthusiasm balanced by an earnest concern for their success.
It was an ordinary Monday morning in early 2015 when the headmaster caught up with Geoff just before his first lesson of the week. One his female pupils, an 18 year old, had been overhead suggesting that he had slapped her behind on that school trip. He was sure it was nothing, but procedure being what is and all that. He was sure Geoff would be back in no time.
Geoff was reinstated a few weeks later - words of advice given and noted - but no finding he had done anything much wrong. Another couple of months went by, then another call to the headmaster’s office. More allegations from the same young woman. Not just a slap, but touching every day. Groping. A hand up the skirt. She had downplayed it before, hadn't wanted to tell the whole story. The police would have to be involved.
When the police came knocking all Geoff wanted to know was what he was supposed to have done wrong. Was anyone else saying this? Were there any witnesses? When was this meant to have happened? Surely I can be told when I am meant to have touched this pupil? It's nonsense, I haven't done anything wrong. There are no other witnesses, because it didn't happen. It's her word against mine. It's not true.
And then the waiting began. On police bail. Waiting. Released under investigation. Waiting. Suspended from school. Waiting. Ongoing enquiries. Phone forensics. Safeguarding. Social services? Why me? How can I just wait?
The Doctor helped at first. Sleeping pills, some medication, just to keep things on an even keel. It's hard, these months. There are dark days. How can I look after my family when I can't work? How can I plan? How can I defend myself?
After 15 months on police bail finally the call came. Charged with sexual assault. A.Sex.Offender. Reports in the press, "Geoff (the pervert), pleaded not guilty (well they all do don't they) and his case was sent to the Crown Court for trial (because that's how serious it is)". Parentheses added but they are hardly necessary, are they? No one makes it up.
Then the bright lights, the wigs and gowns, the courtroom. The endless delays. Why won't the CPS disclose their evidence? Why won't the police hand over the full case? Why won't the school hand over their records?
In the autumn of 2017, well over 2 ½ years after the allegations arose at the end of a six day trial it took a jury just 45 minutes to unanimously find Geoff not guilty. There was no celebration, no joy, no ‘I always told you so’. With his career in ruins and his reputation trashed, it can only be a hollow, pyrrhic victory. A DBS check that will still show there was an allegation even if a jury couldn't be sure of guilt. No work for those long years. No apology. No sorry. Just relief, and finally sleep.
The ever present threat faced by any professional who interacts personally with people or colleagues, especially for teachers, sports coaches, care workers or health professionals is that if just one person, however unreliable, vague, inconsistent or motivated, makes an allegation of sexual assault they will be treated as a victim and believed. The perpetrator, for that is how they will be described and presented, will be suspended, investigated, and the best that will ever follow is that the allegation cannot be proved.
The Crown Prosecution Service when deciding whether or not to charge routinely fail to properly apply the test for prosecution, namely that a conviction must be more likely than not. It will not be admitted, but commonly in a sexual allegation the CPS merely ask whether, presuming the victim's account is true, a conviction is possible. That is the culture. We must believe victims. We must tackle the myths. We must bring the offender to justice. We must avoid a complaint - let the court decide.
At a time when sexual abuse and sexual harassment allegations are flooding the headlines, at a time of enlightenment around the extent of awful abuse by abusers previously brushed under the carpet, it is more important than ever for our policies and criminal justice system to recognise that not all allegations are true. Moreover, the arbiter of truth should be the court and only those cases where there is genuinely a likelihood of conviction should get that far. In other cases, precious resources would be better directed to supporting those who describe themselves as victims of sexual abuse. The decision to record and pursue an allegation has profound consequences for the alleged offender from which they can never escape. Careers and lives are forever changed, sometimes destroyed. It is not a price worth paying, and it profoundly undermines the landscape for those cases that should be prosecuted.
Matthew Graham represented Geoff (not his real name) throughout his criminal proceedings.
NB: *Names have been changed.