October 2018

Married vicar told teenage girl it was ‘fine with God’ to have sex with her

A married Church of England vicar told a vulnerable teenage girl it was ‘fine with God’ to have sex with her, a disciplinary tribunal ruled.

Simon Marsh told her she would be ‘disobeying him and God’ if she refused a sexual relationship and that it was ‘her duty to allow him to behave as he did’.

On one occasion, the tribunal found, he got angry after she spilt coffee and ‘insisted’ she perform a sex act on him. On another he ‘forced her’ into sex, saying ‘it would only happen once because God couldn’t approve of more’.

Mr Marsh, 59, was vicar of St Michael and All Angels Church in Bramhall, Stockport, at the time.

After a hearing of the Bishop’s disciplinary tribunal for the Diocese of Chester, he has now been removed from office and prohibited from exercising any ministerial functions as a member of Church of England clergy for life.

It’s the most serious penalty the Anglican church can impose.

The tribunal’s determination after the hearing read: “Increasingly he used force, anger and pressure, physical, emotional, and even theological, to compel her to submit to his increasing sexual demands and gratification.

“He attempted to justify his demands by telling her it was fine with God that he had sexual relations with her.”

Mr Marsh was arrested on suspicion of rape and sexual assault in 2014, but no charges were brought after the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there was insufficient evidence.

The burden of proof at the tribunal, brought by the Archdeacon of Macclesfield, was to a civil standard and the case against him was found proved in full.

The determination and ruling have been published on the Diocese of Chester website.

Meanwhile the Bishop of Chester, the Rt Rev Dr Peter Forster, has apologised for ‘a sad and inexcusable tale of the abuse of trust and power by a priest’.

The tribunal ruled Mr Marsh and the girl met in 2009. Aged under-16 at the time, she was ‘looking for emotional and proper parental support’ after what was described as an ‘unhappy, dysfunctional family life’.

“She became interested in the church and in deepening her faith and interest in Christianity,” the tribunal ruled.

Mr Marsh offered her support and she ‘shared her problems’ with him as a friend. He also helped her to baptism and confirmation. But by 2010 the relationship had ‘deepened’ and he warned her ‘to keep their meetings secret’, the tribunal ruled.

It was found proved he shared poems about love and sex with her. Mr Marsh bought her presents, told her he loved her and ‘encouraged her’ to sent him intimate messages on a website. He referred to himself as ‘Gabriel’ – meaning ‘the messenger’ – and her by the private nickname ‘Raphael’.

The relationship, the panel found, amounted to ‘a course of conduct over four years’ and a ‘sexual relationship’ between January 2011 and 2013.

A ‘great deal of the material events’ happened when she was a minor and he became ‘infatuated if not increasingly besotted by her’, panel members concluded.

The tribunal ruled that in April 2012, he ‘forced her’ to have sex, telling her ‘it would only happen once because God couldn’t approve of more’.

But further sexual intimacy, the panel found, happened ‘often against her will’ and the relationship became ‘increasingly coercive, aggressive and controlling by him, resulting in her ending it’.

The Rev Marsh made ’emphatic denials of any sexual misconduct’ at the hearing.

But in its judgement, the tribunal said he ‘seemed to us to be in total denial as to the events in issue, maintaining they had never happened’, with members saying they found him to be a ‘deeply controlling man’.

“He sought to justify to her (and to us) his relationship with her as one on proper theological or priestly grounds, variously explaining it as a father/daughter like relationship, a close friend and colleague type relationship,” the panel ruled. “Frankly, in our judgement, we found him a deeply unsatisfactory witness.

“She was not, we find, fabricating the allegations against him, nor was she fantasising, nor did she strike us at all as the dishonest, or manipulative and revengeful woman implied.”