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Leader comment: Position of trust

12 March 2021

IT IS unnerving to see sport and religion roped together, particularly in legislation. But the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is to be welcomed for its recognition that young people in sporting and religious situations are more than usually vulnerable to abuse. As a result, and as recommended by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) and various sporting bodies, the Government intends the ban on sexual relations with people aged 16 and 17 which currently pertains to adults in the teaching and caring professions be extended to include sports coaches and religious mentors. The new restrictions will be narrowly defined: to come into the “positions of trust” category, the coach or mentor must be in touch with the 16-17-year-old “on a regular basis”. Also, they must know that they are in a position of trust. This might seem obvious, but the example given in the covering notes is of an adult who “preaches regularly to a congregation of 2000 people and has had never met B [16-17-year-old], so does not even know that B is a member of that congregation” and will not, therefore, be considered to be in a position of trust.

The explanatory notes from the Ministry of Justice make clear the Government’s concern that, in framing a new section of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it does nothing to erode the “legal right of those over the age of 16 to consent to sexual activity”. There is no sign, however, of any concern in the other direction: for those people who will still not be protected by the new legislation on account of their age. Both the new and the existing legislation makes explicit what is know to all: that consent to sexual activity can be compromised by people who exploit their being in a position of trust. There is, however, no moment of miraculous revelation on someone’s 18th birthday that makes them invulnerable to such exploitation. Most 18-year-olds begin their adult life at school, with no more life experience, no less susceptibility to manipulation, than they had at 17. It is possible that the criminal law is too blunt an instrument to distinguish between pernicious calculation and innocent infatuation; but there are circumstances in which a sexual relationship between a spiritual leader and a member of their flock is wrong at any age — for example, during counselling after a divorce. If the law cannot guard against such abuse, then it remains the responsibility of the institution to offer what protection it can — which makes the reform of the clergy disciplinary process all the more important.

One other element of interest in the new Crime Bill: criminal damage to monuments. At present, someone causing less than £5000-worth of damage can be sentenced to a maximum of three months’ imprisonment. This maximum is to be raised to ten years, and the monetary value of the damage is to become immaterial, replaced by a consideration of “emotional or wider distress”. It is not clear at this stage whether the statue of a slave-trader may in future be torn down with impunity — as long as they are unloved.

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