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Trial of 'sham marriages' priest collapses

31 October 2014

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Reinstatement: St Jude with St Aidan, Thornton Heath 

Reinstatement: St Jude with St Aidan, Thornton Heath 

A PRIEST in south London accused of presiding over a succession of sham marriages has returned to his parish after the collapse of his trial last week. The priest, the Revd Nathan Ntege, had been suspended from the parish, St Jude with St Aidan, Thornton Heath, for three years.

His Honour Judge Madge halted the trial at the Inner London Crown Court, saying that "officers at the heart of this prosecution have deliberately concealed important information, and lied on oath."

The judge made his decision after the defence argued that UK Border Agency (UKBA) officials in charge of the investigation had destroyed and tampered with evidence, altered the investigation log, and acted dishonestly. One of the officials was said to have accessed "racist material" on Facebook: an image of a children's TV character with the slogan Peppa Pig Against Muslims.

The judge said that "bad faith and misconduct" by the officers began at the start of the investigation, and had "continued throughout the course of this trial. In my judgement, it has tainted the whole case [and] the prosecution should not be allowed to benefit from the serious misbehaviour of the officer in the case, or the disclosure officer."

Describing the case as "exceptional", the judge said that "it would be unfair for the defendants to continue to be tried. If the trial were to be permitted to continue, there is a real risk that public faith in the criminal-justice system would be undermined." Three officials, suspended by the Home Office, are being investigated by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

In the dock with Mr Ntege were a church secretary, Maudlyn Riviere, and a verger, Brian Miller; as well as four so-called "fixers": Galina Petkova, Georgia Forteath, Innocent Odoh, and Angela Pelachie. The case against all seven has collapsed.

Before the trial was stopped, the prosecutor, Edward Lucas, told the jury that the number of weddings at St Jude and St Aidan's had increased from six a year in 2005, before Mr Ntege's arrival, to six a day. In 2010 more than 200 had taken place (News, 25 January 2013; 12 September 2014). The prosecution alleged that, in all, there had been 494 sham marriages. "Couples were simply processed by the . . . team, like a matrimonial conveyor belt," Mr Lucas said. Mr Ntege had also been accused of diverting £70,000 of wedding fees from the diocese to his native Uganda.

Returning to his church on Sunday, Mr Ntege refused to answer journalists' questions, but said that he and his wife would be taking a holiday.

The Bishop of Croydon, the Rt Revd Jonathan Clark, urged the congregation "to focus not on whatever happened or didn't happen in court, not on the UK Border Agency, not on other people in the church or in your community, but . . . on God and God's love", the Daily Mail reported.

A spokesman for Southwark diocese, in a statement, said that the diocese had "co-operated fully with the UKBA inquiry, and it is very regrettable that after such a long period the conduct of the investigation has been found to be an abuse of process,"

"As the case has been stayed, the Revd Nathan Ntege has the right to return to work. The Bishop of Southwark has already met with him to discuss supervision, oversight, and support. . . The diocese takes seriously its obligation to ensure the clergy are regularly offered up-to-date advice and training in both their legal and financial responsibilities." Mr Ntege has been offered such training in the past, and the diocese hopes that the renewed offer will be accepted."

A new law that comes into force early next year will prohibit the use of banns before a C of E wedding that involves a foreign national from a country outside Switzerland and the EEA. In future, marriages involving such foreigners will require an Archbishop's special licence, or a certificate issued by a superintendent registrar (News, 18 October 2013, 25 October 2013).

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