In May 1650 the “Rump” House of Commons passed an “Act for suppressing the detestable sins of Incest, Adultery and Fornication.”
Adultery by either sex became punishable by death, although if committed by a man with an unmarried woman it was deemed merely “fornication” with a sentence of 3 months imprisonment for a first offence (in a seventeenth century version of the “three strikes” rule it was death for a third offence of fornication). The Adultery Act was so successful in eliminating the detestable sin, that it during its ten years in force it only proved necessary to execute four women, and no men.
However, by 1660 its time was up. Other “Acts” of the Rump Parliament had included the abolition of the House of Lords and the abolition of the monarchy, so upon the restoration of both institutions in 1660 the Adultery Act was no longer recognised as being a validly created law. Since then adultery has not been a criminal offence in England and Wales. The misleadingly entitled tort of “criminal conversation” – it was not criminal and did not require any conversation – lingered on till 1857. Well into the second half of the twentieth century one could in theory obtain damages for adultery, but that ended in 1970. Adultery lingered on in law as a ground for divorce until last year, but with the enactment of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 even that disappeared.
So it was a little odd to read in the Church Times last year that a Southend vicar, Father Bill Bulloch, was cleared of adultery in an English court.
The court in question was neither a criminal nor a divorce court, but a little-known ad-hoc statutory panel called the “Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal,” the Bishop in question being that of Chelmsford. The “defendant” – or to give him the correct title the respondent – was the Vicar of St James, Leigh-on-Sea, near Southend in Essex. The person seeking to prove the allegation in this Trollopian tribunal– rather confusingly known as the “Complainant” – was the Archdeacon of Southend. Confusion might arise if anyone assumes that because he was the “complainant” the Archdeacon of Southend was involved in criminal conversation with the vicar: he was not. He was acting here in the role of prosecutor, although the actual advocate presenting the case in the Tribunal (“the Designated Officer”) was a barrister with expertise in ecclesiastical law employed by the Church of England. Confusingly there was in fact an actual “complainant,” but to spare her feelings – and even though she was not alleging that she was the victim of any sexual offence – she is known publicly only as “AB.” Her principal complaint was that the Vicar had committed adultery with her. Her subsidiary complaint was that he had sworn at her: at least 28 “fucks” in April 2017 and 13 in September.
Some might reasonably ask: if AB was (as she says she was) a willing partner in the adultery that she says she committed with the vicar, what business was that of the Archdeacon of Southend? Is he some sort of self-appointed morality policeman for the Essex coast?
He is not, but he does have a statutory role in disciplining errant clergy. The Archdeacon took the view, no doubt correctly, that if Fr Bulloch had committed adultery with AB, a woman to whom the Vicar was giving pastoral support, that would have been:
“… unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders within section 8(1) (d) of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003.”
A married priest who commits adultery with a woman coming to him for pastoral support does not just betray his own wife, he also abuses the position of trust and influence accorded to a spiritual adviser.
Fr Bulloch denied the charge of adultery, and as we shall see the Tribunal sided with him on that allegation, but he did admit two lesser charges of “conduct unbecoming a clerk in Holy Orders,” namely:
(a) failing to seek assistance or advice from the diocesan safeguarding team or senior diocesan clergy as to how suitable help or support could be provided for “AB” and
(b) in the course of a number of conversations [being] rude and abusive by using foul and obscene language.
As a punishment it ordered him to attend various courses:
(a) an anger management course …
(b) a course relating to the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults …
(c) training in appropriate working, supervision and external relationships approved by the appropriate diocesan bishop.
These were fairly lenient punishments. However the Tribunal said:
“it was … serious misconduct for a parish priest not to involve fully the diocesan authorities in the situation that had arisen, to provide assistance to AB and advice to the Respondent.”
For this “serious misconduct” the Tribunal imposed one of the most severe penalties available to it: removal from office. The effect of that was to render the vicar unemployed, unemployable in the Church, and homeless.
Fortunately, as a result of an appeal to the highest ecclesiastical court, the Court of Arches, the punishment of removal from office was last week quashed, and Fr Bulloch will be allowed to continue in his office.
AB’s name has been kept a secret. There may be a legal basis for this, but if so I don’t know what it is. S.1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 does prohibit the publication of the name of someone who makes an allegation of a sexual offence, but AB does not appear to have made any such allegation. Her allegations were of consensual sex.
Fr Bulloch’s name has been widely publicised in the Church, and an online campaign has been launched, which I will deliberately not provide a link to since it is clearly defamatory, describing him as “an abusive priest” and calling for him – notwithstanding his successful appeal – to be refused permission to officiate at services.
Any neutral party reading the appeal judgment, which can be downloaded from the Church Times website, and still more that of the original tribunal will quickly come to the conclusion that not only was Fr Bulloch innocent of adultery, but also that he has been the victim of a bizarre, deranged and vicious character assassination. If you have the time I would encourage you to read the full tribunal judgment which is available to download here. (I should add that counsel for Fr Bulloch both at the original hearing and at the appeal was my colleague and fellow member of my chambers, Justin Gau, although the opinions expressed in this blog are mine alone).
The judgment reveals a remarkably complicated story spun by AB, involving calculated lying, the creation of multiple false identities, and even false identities hiding behind other false identities, the sending of bogus emails from non-existent doctors, a fake pregnancy, faked or edited photographs of a foetus and all for no obvious motive beyond an inexplicable desire to see a kindly, popular and perhaps rather naive parish priest pilloried, humiliated and ruined by highly damaging sexual allegations.
AB was not a parishioner of Fr Bulloch’s but of a neighbouring parish, St Luke’s. The vicar of St Lukes was a Father McCluskey. After what the tribunal rather coyly described as “some difficulties” there, Fr McCluskey suggested that she speak to Fr Bulloch at St James. She rang up Fr Bulloch, and they met. Fr Bulloch heard her confession. Soon they started to meet regularly, and she started joining Fr Bulloch and his wife for meals. She called him her “lighthouse,” a “guiding light,” and her “shepherd.” All things which a priest is meant to be.
Even at this early stage, though, there were signs that there was something a little unusual about the relationship. Mrs Bulloch described AB coming round to watch films, but they were not to her taste, containing scenes of “graphic suicide” and “very disturbing sexual behaviour.” AB also gave them gifts, some of which were very generous, but at least one – a whole pig’s head – bordered on, and some would say crossed the line well into, the creepy.
After she had been visiting for a few months, AB revealed that she was seriously ill. Fr Bulloch visited her at home, and she said she needed a wheelchair. He had needed one for his own disabled daughter and he now lent it to AB.
Then in November 2016 she told him that she was suffering from a terminal illness. She had, she said, been placed on what she called a “palliative pathway.” This was confirmed by emails sent to Fr Bulloch from AB’s psychiatrist “Julian.”
According to “Julian” AB was unlikely to last until Christmas. She was facing the imminent prospect of a “slow and most painful death.” Tragically, there was no hospice place available to her, and her last wish was to live out her dying days as part of a family. Fr Bulloch was reluctant to accommodate her in his own home, but he tried to help. With his wife, or with his daughter, he visited her in her own house and tried to keep her spirits up. He also took her out on “last visits” to places of importance to her. There can be no greater responsibility given to a priest than ministering to the sick and dying.
Then AB said that her heating had failed. Seeing a dying woman living in a house in the middle of winter with no heating the priest did a very Christian thing (although something he had been, in his emails to Julian, reluctant to agree to for some time): he invited her to stay in his own house, and she stayed for two weeks. Both Fr Bulloch and his wife looked after her, when Mrs Bulloch gave her what was desribed as “personal care.” It was a busy household, with various members of Fr Bulloch’s family always there, including his daughter. As Mrs Bulloch was later to say “we were all exhausted.” At times Fr Bulloch wanted to call an ambulance for her, or ask nurses to visit to help with her care. She always declined any such medical assistance.
It was during this stay, AB claimed, that Father Bulloch first touched her sexually, as his wife lay in bed upstairs. At the time AB made no complaint.
She returned to her own home after a couple of weeks. Fr Bulloch visited her, and according to AB they had sexual intercourse on at least 20 occasions. She complained that she felt that Fr Bulloch had “power over her,” and on one occasion she said he had “put his hands round her throat.”
Fr Bulloch said all this was nonsense. There had been never been any sexual contact. The suggestion was absurd. There was always someone else in AB’s house – whether her adult child or her father – and “AB was unable to walk, open her eyes without dark glasses,” much less to engage in sexual intercourse. She apparently used an oxygen tank to breathe and wore a canula. Vials of blood, needles, tubes and bowls of vomit were on the floor, something confirmed by another priest who visited her during the same period.
At one point, extraordinarily, AB asked Fr Bulloch if she would tell her seven year old daughter that AB was going to die soon. It is a horrible responsibility to give to anyone, but Fr Bulloch did as he was asked and told AB’s daughter the awful news while taking them both on a trip to Shoebury.
He had no doubts at all that what AB was telling him and his wife was true.
However, in January 2017 her story started to unravel when, by chance, Mrs Bulloch was visiting Basildon hospital with her own daughter. She saw AB – supposedly at death’s door – walking quite normally. Indeed when she saw Mrs Bulloch, AB started running away.
At that point the emails from “Julian” ceased – about 130 had been sent over approximately 2 months, although none whilst AB was staying with the Bullochs – only to be replaced by emails from a “Dr Khokhar.” They went into great detail about AB’s condition, explaining that she was terminally ill, suffering from “fluid on the lungs,” “swelling of the brain,” and damage to “the lower ventricles of the heart,” but that “she remains very brave and continues to try and be positive.” She has been, said “Dr Khokhar,” “unable to walk or function as normally as she would of (sic) done so 12 months ago.”
Fr Bulloch was finally becoming suspicious. There was in fact a Dr Khokhar, a consultant cardiologist, working at Southend Hospital. Fr Bulloch contacted him and he confirmed that he knew nothing about the emails.
To call the explanations that were given for the “Julian” and “Dr Khokhar” emails “convoluted” would be a considerable understatement.
AB’s evidence to the tribunal was that the “Julian” emails had been sent by her 18 year old son, who had glimpsed her in a “sexually compromising situation” with Fr Bulloch in November. Wishing to know more about their relationship he decided – as any inquisitive teenager would – to pose as his sick mother’s psychiatrist so that he could engage him in correspondence.
This account was – fatally for the “prosecution” case – impossible to reconcile with AB’s own evidence that there had been no sexual contact between herself and Fr Bulloch until some weeks after the “Julian” emails began to be sent. However, the argument presented to the Tribunal – apparently on the basis of absolutely no evidence at all – was still odder: the Designated Officer argued that contrrary to AB’s evidence that her son had written the emails, she had in fact done so herself; moreover, argued the DO, Fr Bulloch had known all along that she was writing them and he replied as part of a “game … keeping up the pretence that Julian was a real medical professional discharging professional responsibilities for AB.”
If your head is spinning by now, then have pity on the poor tribunal because I have left out the evidence about two different Julians and a Justin. The first Julian was Julian Barton, a psychiatrist whom, by the time of the tribunal hearing was acknowledged by everyone to be an entirely fictitious character. The second Julian was Julian Hayes, who is – according to AB anyway – a real person, but a counsellor not a psychiatrist, who sometimes, called himself Julian Barton, but who does not seem to have been accused of writing any emails anyway. There was also mention of another counsellor called “Justin” who AB said had sent emails to Fr Bulloch although none were in fact produced.
The “Dr Khokhar” emails were explained by AB, more straightforwardly as having been written by “a nurse called Claire.” Needless to say Claire, if she existed at all, is not further identified and certainly did not give evidence. The tribunal concluded, unanimously, that, as with the “Julian” emails, the author of the Dr Khokhar emails was again AB. AB had set up two separate false identities to correspond with Fr Bulloch.
Likewise, the tribunal were unanimous that she was never on any “palliative pathway” and that:
“her descriptions of her medical condition in ‘Julian’ and ‘Khokhar’ emails [were] bogus and designed to manipulate those reading them into believing her and caring for her in the way she wanted.”
These findings of deliberate dishonesty were a great deal more emphatic than strictly necessary to decide the case. The Tribunal could simply have said that “on the balance of probabilities we do not accept AB’s evidence.”
I suppose one could say that Fr Bulloch was very naive not to have realised that he had been duped long before his wife saw AB running away in the hospital, but he is not the first or the last person tricked by a deception which in hindsight seems obvious. The priesthood attracts many good people who want to help others. Whilst police officers are taught (or used to be) the copper’s ABC: “assume nothing, believe no-one, check everything,” priests are taught the Sermon on the Mount: “Judge not that ye be not judged,” and “What man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” In short priests are by the nature of their calling and their training likely to be trusting and generous, admirable qualities, but ones that can overlap with dangerous naivety.
Unfortunately for the Bullochs the dawning realisation that AB had taken them for a ride did not bring their troubles to an end. They should, of course, have reported what had happened to the Church authorities, if not to the police. One of the charges against Fr Bulloch, which he admitted, was that he had:
“failed to seek assistance or advice from the diocesan safeguarding team or senior diocesan clergy as to how suitable help or support could be provided for [AB] and/or as to how he should respond to her;”
Mrs Bulloch explained why they did not:
“we felt shaken, used, hurt, and very foolish and just wanted to put it behind us…”
It would no doubt have saved them a huge amount of trouble if he had sought assistance once he realised he had been deceived.
As it was, the Bulloch’s wish to put it all behind them was in vain. Their troubles only deepened after Fr Bulloch told AB of his suspicions. He sent an email saying that he was coming to collect the wheelchair he had lent her “which I am guessing you have not been needing.” When he and his wife arrived, AB immediately threatened him saying that she could “make trouble” if he would not continue to be her priest. Mrs Bulloch told the Tribunal that they were both shaken by her “angry, threatening behaviour, in comparison to the sweet, vulnerable person we had been led to believe she was.”
More emails from AB followed, some hinted at her imminent suicide, some threatened to “expose” him. She said that she was now pregnant, accusing him of being the father. She talked of scans and videos of the unborn child. Phone calls followed, so he blocked her number. She continued to visit his church. As one can imagine, when this happened there were heated discussions between the two of them. This led to the charge that was eventually laid against him – and admitted – of using “foul and obscene language.” AB had started to record some of their conversations, and in some of these Fr Bulloch had sworn at her, on one occasion using the word “fuck” 28 times, on another 13 times. Obviously a priest should not swear, and certainly not in a Church, but one can readily understand why he lost his temper.
It perhaps goes without saying that none of these recorded conversations – a compilation of which, selected by AB, was placed before the tribunal – contained any admission of guilt by Fr Bulloch. Some passages, the tribunal felt, were perhaps “ambiguous” but:
“… by this stage [Fr Bulloch] knows that AB has duped him into believing her to be mortally ill when she was not and on that false basis he had gone to great lengths to minister to her imposing great burdens on himself and his family. He now knows that ‘Julian’ and ‘Dr Khokhar’ do not exist and are part of this deception. We find that R must have been angry and humiliated with his own naivety in being used in this way even to the extent of being manipulated to speak to a 7 year old about her mother’s impending death. On top of this he now knows that AB is alleging that he has had a sexual relationship with him ( this was raised for the first time on 2/2/17 in the exchange of emails after ‘Dr Khokhar’ was exposed) and that she is now alleging that she is pregnant bringing an urn with his name on it to his church. The desperation and exasperation in his voice can be attributed equally to all these things, as much as the Designated Officer’s submission that he is guilty of what she alleges.”
Nor was any medical evidence produced to demonstrate that she was terminally ill, or even physically ill at all. What was presented (not thanks to the official investigation but because a trainee in Fr Bulloch’s solicitor’s office found it) was an Instagram post by AB from May 2017 – when she was supposedly either heavily pregnant or had just given birth; and while she was claiming to Fr Bulloch to be several months along a “palliative pathway” to a “slow and painful death” – of AB enjoying herself on a bouncy castle, in a way that was, as the tribunal found “completely inconsistent with her claimed physical incapacity.”
And of course there was no evidence that she was ever pregnant with Fr Bulloch’s child or in fact pregnant at all at the relevant time.
The result of the Tribunal hearing was that on every disputed issue Fr Bulloch was believed and AB was not. He told the truth, she lied. Although some elements of the decision were reached by a majority, the conclusion that she had constructed false identities and falsely claimed to be suffering from a terminal illness was unanimous. AB was a manipulative liar on a grand scale, she had targetted Fr Bulloch for month after month, and both he and and his wife were victims of her campaign of lies, deceit and character assassination. It is true that AB did not allege rape or non-consensual sex, but her allegations still had the potential, and must have been intended, to destroy his ministry, his marriage and his reputation: in effect to destroy his life. Her conduct was variously described by the Tribunal as dishonest, manipulative, chilling and egregious.
It might be thought that having been dragged through a Church court on a trumped up charge that could have ended both his marriage and his career, Fr Bulloch deserved not condemnation but huge sympathy. Unfortunately, the Tribunal’s decision to dismiss him from his office meant that even though AB was exposed (at least to the Tribunal, if not to the general public) as a liar, she nevertheless achieved most of what she set out to do anyway.
Fr Bulloch announced his intention to appeal the sentence. Two of the Church of England’s many bishops waded into the case on opposite sides.
The Bishop of Barking opposed the appeal, and wrote a letter explaining why. His first reason was:
“The effect that Fr Bulloch remaining in office would have on the mental health of the alleged victim, who still lives in close proximity to the parish.”
This was an extraordinary argument. AB was not an “alleged victim.” She was a proven liar who had used “egregious” methods to manipulate and threaten the actual victim and his family, and then lied about it in court in an attempt to have him dismissed from the priesthood. Even if there had been any evidence that allowing Fr Bulloch to remain in office would damage her mental health (and none was ever produced), that would have been entirely her own fault.
The bishop then referred to “adverse local publicity” and “reputational damage and risk to the church … were [Fr Bulloch] to remain in office,” and observed that “the alleged victim is extremely likely to pursue her grievances with strong local and national support for some time to come ….”
(The reference to AB “pursuing her grievances” was a reference to the fact that AB had in February last year instructed solicitors to pursue a claim for damages.)
So much for the importance of the ninth commandment and Proverbs 6: 16-19 (“the Lord hates a lying tongue … a heart that deviseth wicked imaginations … and a false witness that speaketh lies.”) This bishop seems to be in an awful muddle both morally and theologically, placing the well-being of the false accuser and the reputation of the Church above the well-being (including perhaps the mental health) of a grievously wronged priest and his family. Had the Court of Arches been persuaded by this outpouring of twaddle from Barking it would have perpetuated another terrible injustice.
Fortunately it was not. Fortunately too, it received a letter from the Bishop of Richborough who strongly supported the appeal. It quashed the sentence of dismissal, with the result that Fr Bulloch is to remain in his post.
This has not stopped the mutterings. The online campaign against him has gathered signatures, although thankfully not very many, and at least one of those who signed has publicly asked how he may unsign.
There are of course lessons for the Church. The investigation and disclosure process was highly unsatisfactory. At one stage the Designated Officer even proposed that the Tribunal should make its decision without hearing any evidence from AB at all, something which would have turned a fact-finding hearing into a kangaroo court. A proper investigation ought to have revealed at an earlier stage that AB was not a witness to be relied upon. And it is hard to disagree with the Tribunal’s observation that:
“If those who prosecute a claim like this cannot put forward their principal witness as truthful on an important matter, great caution must be taken before embarking upon such a complaint based on what that witness says about other matters.”
Great caution means, as the Tribunal pointed out, a proper investigation.
And what of AB? Despite the Tribunal’s explicit and unanimous finding that she lied it seems unlikely that she will face any adverse consequences. While Fr Bulloch and his family try to rebuild their lives a deeply unpleasant online campaign continues to describe her as “a victim” and him as “an abusive priest.” The organiser of the campaign ascribes the failure of the Designated Officer to prove adultery not to the fact that AB was exposed as a liar, but to the fact that Fr Bulloch was represented by a “top barrister,” skating over, or actually not reporting at all, the fact that the DO at the tribunal, Adrian Iles, is one of the country’s leading ecclesiastical lawyers, a man largely responsible for writing the Clergy Discipline Measure (which was used to bring the case against Fr Bulloch) and currently Chancellor (that is, the judge in a Church court) for the Diocese of Durham.
Unlike Fr Bulloch’s, AB’s name is unknown outside a very tight circle. She can continue to present herself, in the words of Mrs Bulloch, as a “sweet vulnerable person.” Given her anonymity, it seems that there is very little to stop her doing something similar in the future.
The case leaves a most unpleasant taste in the mouth. A good man has been shamed, humiliated and punished, and continues to be defamed even after his legal vindication. A cunning fraudulent and deceitful witness has walked away with her reputation untarnished, with no consequences whatever. Despite Fr Bulloch’s successful appeal, it is hard not to feel that there is something fundamentally unjust about that outcome.