Consent and tackling the predators

by Sgt Andrew Pardy, Hertfordshire Constabulary

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It is common in the police service to deal with incidents that go against the grain of common decency. When dealing with these incidents, the police are carefully watched, by their peers, the individuals concerned, and the larger community. How the police deal with these incidents is of the upmost importance, as it can be the difference between a conviction or the offender getting off on a technicality. But just as important is the public perception of the police’s ability to investigate, understand and deal with the incident; it impacts on how the public interact with the police.

The sad truth is that heinous crimes can become a reassuring catalyst to individuals who have been victims of a similar circumstance; if the police deal with it well.

One example was the arrest and conviction of Bristol man David Mace, for a number of serious sexual offences against vulnerable women and young girls over a period of almost 20 years, under the guise of Pagan ritual. Mace already had a history of sexual offending dating back 40 years, and Kenneth Gavens, with whom he colluded, was also jailed for his part in the offences in their self-proclaimed coven.

The case was an important milestone in UK legal history. Firstly, while each police force has sexual offences and major crime departments who are adept at dealing with serious offenders and complex cases, the investigators for these crimes had to understand Paganism, dealing with it in the context of the modus operandi of both offenders and the victims; it was vital to understanding how the offenders were able to access their victims and commit these atrocious acts.

Secondly, the case’s impact, and ensuing result at court, has been vitally important to the Pagan community. The police were seen to understand the circumstances of the victims, and the role Paganism played in the offenders’ methods. The victims were not blamed, and convictions were secured against offenders who’d worked hard to hide their crimes, convincing their victims everything was ‘normal’.

The case’s outcome has been a positive and a negative experience for us in the Police Pagan Association. Positive because, on seeing how the police dealt with this case, victims of sexual crime in a Pagan context are more confident to report cases. The negative is how many are coming forward.

In addition to those who knew, or suspected, they were victims of predatory sexual offenders, there are others who, until reading about the case, were unaware that what had happened was wrong, and was not accepted Pagan practice. The victims’ accounts make it clear that the primary fear was a lack of understanding about Paganism, and a fear that they would be blamed for putting themselves in such a vulnerable situation.

And who can blame them? Looking at Paganism from the viewpoint of someone with no knowledge of our ways, there are many practices and acts that might seem to place an importance on sexuality that isn’t commonly found outside Paganism. Some covens worship in the nude, and the significance of sex and sexuality is inherent in much of Pagan practice, regardless of path. There are rituals – although not commonplace – that involve consummation between consenting couples, but herein lies the complex issue of consent.

Much has been done over the last 15 years to modernise the terminology and definitions pertaining to sexual offences in UK law, the most significant being the introduction of The Sexual Offences Act 2003, which introduced several evidential presumptions about consent. From our experience of dealing with this influx of reports, the sexual offences are borne primarily from two aspects; those who feel obliged or pressured into sexual activity with another, and those deceived into sexual activity. There are also those to whom substances have been administered to render them incapable of true consent – as was the case with some of Mace’s victims – but this is far less common.

I won’t make this legislation-heavy, but the following information, detailed with The Act, is of significance to this article. Section 75 sets out definitive evidential presumptions – ie, points that can be taken as fact, to which offenders will have no defence if proven in court – these state that if the offender, or another, uses violence or force at the time, or immediately before the offence, then the victim is automatically assumed not to have consented – this includes the threat of violence. Additionally, if the victim is unlawfully detained, asleep, unconscious, under the influence of an administered substance, or unable to convey consent through a disability, then the police and the court can assume that the victim did not give consent.

However, the main issue with Pagans seems to be the premise that the sexual act is relevant to the religious practice, the ritual at hand, or the spiritual needs of the victim and/or the offender. This practice is not exclusive to Paganism, and for this reason it is covered specifically under Section 76 of The Act. To use the exact wording:

If the defendant (offender) intentionally deceived the complainant (victim) as to the nature and purpose of the relevant act (the sexual assault) then it will be conclusively presumed both that the victim did not consent and that the defendant did not believe that they consented.

This specifically covers the silken-tongued coven leader who convinces a member that, by having sex with them, they will achieve enlightenment and rise in the ranks. Many of those approaching us in the PPA are under the misapprehension that on giving consent – albeit due to deception – that they are not victims of sexual assault. Others are embarrassed to have been deceived, feeling they will be blamed for allowing themselves to believe the offenders.

But what about that first call to the police? Will they take you seriously? Will they understand? Will you be believed? Will you be blamed? I cannot speak for all police officers or staff – there are those who do not represent the values that a majority hold dear – but sexual offences are, and have always been, dealt with the upmost seriousness and compassion by the police. They are a priority crime for most, if not all, forces and resourced by able and knowledgeable investigators who deal with sexual offending in all forms, and victims of all genders, sexuality, faith and social backgrounds.

My reassurances may not be enough to encourage those who have yet to contact the police to come forward. After all, I’m a police officer – of course I’d promote the good work we do. I know that first step, the initial contact, must be such a challenge, which is where the Police Pagan Association can help.

If you are a victim of sexual assault, and want to report it to a police officer who is also a practicing Pagan, you can do so via our website at www.policepaganassociation.org or via your local First Point of Contact (FPOC) officer, who can also be found on the relevant page of our website. The officer with whom you make first contact will not necessarily be the officer who investigates your allegation, but we will explain the procedures to you, support you and assist the investigator throughout.

No ethical Pagan will ever convince you into sex against your will, and you do not need to engage in sexual activity with anyone with whom you don’t want to, in order to pursue your spiritual path. If you are ever uncomfortable or unsure, you have the right to say no; if you are doubtful of the integrity of a coven, Pagan group, a member or leader/elder, tell someone, or report it to the PPA. It may not necessarily lead to an immediate arrest and criminal investigation, but we will work alongside established and trusted Pagan groups such as the Pagan Federation to tackle concerns and challenge unwholesome practices.

Remember though – in the spirit of Crimewatch – that this type of offence is thankfully rare. The vast majority of Pagan groups and covens are genuine adherents who are happy to share their experiences and worship with others.