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Vicar who groped sleeping student on flight spared jail

Credit: Northumbria Police

A Northumberland vicar who groped a sleeping student on a flight has been spared jail.

The Reverend Peter McConnell sexually assaulted the 23-year-old man on a plane from Philadelphia to London Heathrow in March 2017.

He was given a nine-month suspended sentence at Newcastle Crown Court today.

McConnell, 64, was the vicar at St Helen’s Church in Longhorsley, near Morpeth.

He was on sick leave at the time of the offence, and has since retired. He was also previously a chaplain for Northumbria Police.

He had been drinking heavily on the flight, and moved into an empty seat next to the man, before making “sleazy comments” about strip clubs and sexual acts.

After the American student fell asleep, McConnell touched him under a blanket.

The student said the vicar tried to apologise, blaming alcohol.

During his trial, McConnell denied the allegation, saying the student was “terribly mistaken”, but he was found guilty in June.

In a statement read to the court today, the victim said it had been “the most painful chapter of my life”, and the incident had caused him “anger, agony, torment and uncertainty”.

He said the consequences of McConnell’s actions “will forever stay with me”, he had struggled to tell his family, had difficulty sleeping, experienced flashbacks, and feels vulnerable to such an assault happening again.

The student’s statement said it was “deeply disturbing and haunting” that McConnell had also spoken about his faith and his love of children on the same flight, and “the concept that this person used religion as a method to engage in sexually predatory behaviour is absolutely appalling.”

He said McConnell had shown no remorse, and he would never forgive him.

The victim also criticised the Church of England’s response.

I felt that their structure is unsupportive of people reporting crimes perpetrated by their clergy and that their policies were designed to protect abusers like Peter McConnell.

Their policies fall woefully short of solving the problem systematic sexual abuse and protecting the most vulnerable members of society."

– Victim statement

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Newcastle said they will now reflect on the comments made by the victim and whether there are lessons for them to learn.

McConnell had a restraining order imposed against him, forbidding him from contacting the student. He must also attend a sexual behaviour rehabilitation programme and pay costs of £11,500.

I want to praise the victim who has been subjected to the ordeal of two criminal trials and faced having to travel across the world just to give evidence in court.

This type of behaviour is unacceptable and the fact that we have put this case before the court shows that we will investigate every incident reported to us without fear or favour."

– Northumbria Police statement