At the time of my conviction in 2010, I was a Church of England Minister. I had been going through a marital breakdown, and found myself in court for forgery and fraud against my former wife and her daughter. Upon conviction, I received a Community Order to do unpaid work. There were a small number of press reports. The headlines were the most damning: “Vicar stole from family,” etc. But the content of the reports were broadly accurate and anyone with a modicum of intelligence would see that this was, in essence, a matrimonial matter that had become horribly acrimonious.
The Church of England had to be seen to take action and, although they were aware of the circumstances, I was barred from acting as a clergyman for a year and had to resign my post.
For a number of years I had been looking at joining a different church denomination, one that was more inclusive and liberal. I decided that I would do so once my year’s ban was up, as I didn’t want anyone to read into the situation anything that wasn’t true – namely that I had been kicked out of the C of E. So, I waited until my legal ban was up and I was able to practice again as a minister and advised the C of E that I would not be returning to them.
The archbishop of my new church held extensive interviews with me, required me to obtain 12 references, an enhanced CRB check and trawled through the papers relating to the conviction. After meeting with fellow bishops, I was advised that I could join them and that I would be given a full license to minister.
Shortly after leaving the C of E I volunteered to work with a hospice charity and, after discussing the conviction, I was accepted to work as a bereavement supporter. I also secured work with a homeless charity during the year that I had been unable to minister.
Since then, everything has gone fine. With the exception of a couple of cases (for which I have no hard evidence) of a senior C of E minister bad-mouthing me locally, I have had few problems rebuilding my life, carving out a successful ministry and combining it with my work as a funeral director.
Then, in early 2013, I read an article about a man who wished to travel to Switzerland to end his life, but who had no-one to go with him. This led me to have a strong desire to help people in this predicament – i.e. to accompany them on their last journey when no one else would do so. I wrote to the clinic in Switzerland. They gave me some very helpful information, not least with regard to the legal situation in the UK, where it is illegal to assist with suicide, as it is in Switzerland: the person has to commit the act themselves, but it is not illegal to give them emotional support or to be with them, as long as I gained nothing personally.
During neither conversation was I asked anything about my background, save my ministry and what underpinned that. Neither was I asked to produce any references or undergo and CRB checks. I was invited along to a meeting in London. I went, and it further solidified my desire to give support.
Then, about a month ago, I was asked whether I would be happy to accompany someone to Switzerland. I agreed, and the person was given my name and contact details. Then, the following day, I received a very terse email advising me NOT to contact this person, questioning why I had failed to mention my conviction as detailed on the MailOnline and advising me that I could not accompany anyone to Switzerland because of this. It appears that the person had searched for me on Google and had put two and two together in relation to the fraud and forgery convictions.
What is appalling, in many ways, is that none of the press reports show a photograph of me, and although my own website alludes to having gone through a difficult time, there is no obvious link. There are at least another thee clergy in this country with the same name, so I could have screamed mistaken identity – but I didn’t; I was honest. I advised them that they could have just picked up the phone, that I do not have to disclose spent offences and that I am clear on my CRB to work with vulnerable adults, children etc. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be able to work as a church minister in any capacity. I advised them that it is illegal to discriminate against me because of an irrelevant spent conviction. I told them that I felt a call to accompany people, and that this was my only reason for joining the charity, as a good Samaritan helping those in need. I also told them that, as the charity taken such punitive action, I wanted nothing further to do with them. Needless to say, I have heard nothing since.
I contacted Google and asked them to remove the five reports relating to my case as my conviction is now spent. They have refused to do so, stating that the reports do not breech any data protection laws. So, it looks like I am stuck with this situation.
From the point of view of someone who has devoted their life to helping others, often at considerable personal and emotional cost, I feel very bruised by the way that this organisation has acted, and the fact that my spent convictions are all over the internet for anyone to read and make a judgement based on that information alone. I do understand, in part, the charity’s reservations, but they are completely unfounded, as has been proven by my current work and can be vouched for by those I work for in other capacities.
It is rather ironic that I have had no problems until now, when the conviction is spent. It is also very upsetting that the press reports sit there, often higher up the first page of a Google search than my own website! It all seems very wrong that a charity that didn’t ask the questions can axe someone based simply on a Google search. And I am sure I am not the only one who has fallen foul of this. So I hope some sense can be made of the right to a future, unencumbered by the past, and rules for search engines such as Google can be established.