Reflections from a lunatic asylum
The Independent,June 1995
So here we are, after three days in a building that once housed Britain's first purpose-built lunatic asylum, awaiting the end of the trial of the Very Rev Brandon Jackson, Dean of Lincoln. The jury has been out for an hour and a half. Verity Freestone, the former verger, and her mother and sister are sitting on one side of the front row, as they have been throughout the case; Mary Jackson, the dean's wife, with two of her daughters, one son, and other relatives and well-wishers sits about 15 feet away.
Both families are awaiting the verdict with every appearance of confidence and calm - that is what has given the story its particular drama. One side or the other has been telling a pack of lies, as the judge said in his summing up; yet both seem very assured.
Only two people can know what really happened, one of the lawyers had earlier said privately. Then he thought for a moment and said: at most two people know, since one of them has now cemented a fantasy into the roots of their personality.
So during the case we were faced with a sort of novelistic judgement: two stories were offered, and each story required a different cast of characters Our decision depended on which of the characters we found believable. The prosecution's case was a sort of fairytale: a story of Ugly and the Beast.
In this story, Verity Freestone is a woman who has difficulty with life. She is bulky, stupid, unimaginative and hungry for physical affection and love. She is - though no one put it quite this crudely - a born loser: the sort of woman a predatory coach driver would seek out from the tourist herd, as indeed one did. She didn't sleep with the coach driver, but she regretted it: "because his intentions towards me were obvious, and that doesn't happen to me all that often". If she had, "it would have set me up for six moths", she later told the Dean.
When she said that, in the autumn of 1993, she was at a low ebb. She had failed her nurses' exam; been sacked as a verger and rebuffed in her attempts to resume work in the cathedral as a voluntary verger. Yet she believed the Dean had been encouraging her, and when she went to him for more encouragement, she claimed he kissed her too. In her story, to her astonishment and confusion, she discovers that he finds her attractive. She has no difficulty reciprocating.
The affair that follows is patchy, confused, and unsatisfying. He is constantly checked by guilt; when they first reach her bedroom, she returns from the bathroom to find him sitting on the floor, leaning against the bed, wondering whether to go on. She urges him on: "By the fact that he had chosen to come to my house and followed me upstairs, it was obvious what he wanted."
There was a disarming directness about Verity Freestone in her story of Ugly and the Beast. Her character was not very admirable, but it was, in a curious way, decent. Her expectations were not high, but she had her pride. Her lover, on the other hand, was changeable and slippery. "I went to the deanery for bible study on the 24th. I wanted to see how he felt about what had happened. I wanted to know whether he cared about me. I asked him whether he loved me or not. He said it was too early to tell about that sort of thing, but obviously he cared for me."
Once she concluded that she had been exploited and cast off, she was confused, upset and angry, then implacable. There was a sort of long-suffering determination about her that made her in her way almost as frightening as the other important woman in the courtroom, Anne Rafferty QC.
Ms Rafferty was Brandon Jackson's counsel. She has the precise terrifying smile of a cat. I was sitting behind Ms Freestone, directly in the line of fire as Ms Rafferty cross-examined her. Even there, some way outside her effective range, I could feel my conscience squirm.
Ms Rafferty would widen her eyes to an expression of hypnotic incredulity and suck her bottom lip while Miss Freestone trudged through great swamps of embarrassing reminiscence. Yet she kept trudging.
Ms Rafferty: "You told the dean, when you were speaking of the bus driver, that you were desperate for sex and regretted not having it?"
"I might have done. I can't remember," Ms Freestone replied in a tone of stolid resignation. It was as if the cat had stumbled upon a porcupine.
Verity Freestone, true to her name, gave the impression that she could not foresee that anyone could disbelieve her.
There was an extraordinary moment just before lunch on the final day, when Ms Rafferty concluded her summing up. It was a brilliant performance, lucid, funny and savage, and as the court was emptying Brandon Jackson came up to her and the two squeezed hands and did a sort of little jig before he broke away to stride towards the exit. As he did so, Verity appeared, heading in the same direction. Brandon had accelerated out of sight as Verity brushed past the lawyer who had just shredded her testimony; then she slowed as if the reality had just hit her. A tear slithered down her right cheek and she pulled out a handkerchief. She leaned against a doorpost and sobbed briefly until her her mother came up and pulled her through with an arm around her shoulders. But it was the only moment she cracked until the end, when she folded briefly, and sobbed while the Jacksons were embraced in a cheering crowd.
If Ms Freestone was able to make her story of Ugly and the Beast credible enough to be worth refuting, Ms Rafferty could offer the court another version of events, and this, we now know, was true.
In the alternative story, Verity remains slow, unimaginative and rather pathetic. But she is devious and dangerous too. Brandon, "The epitome of a Christian" as one of his witnesses describes him; "a man of good previous character: no, of excellent previous character," in the judge's summing up, is kindly, pastoral, and fails to notice her growing obsession with him. Unworldly, enthusiastic, guileless. He blows on the necks of clergy he considers pompous. He will jog through the night-time streets on pastoral visits. He buys wine by price, and has no idea what sort he drinks. But lurking in the background of the case was the knowledge that he is also loathed by some of his colleagues.
Jackson's supporters claimed he was the victim of a vendetta; and no one who knows the history and habits of the Lincoln Cathedral chapter can doubt that he has enemies who would have rejoiced in his fall. Jackson himself gave a statement immediately after the verdict, saying that his trial had lasted not three days, but 17 months, and that the case should never have been brought. One of his supporters, a parish priest, claimed to me that it was obvious from the start that the case would fail.
Yet the case revealed that there is no mechanism in the existing church law which allows such a judgement about the likely outcome of a trial to be made. The church prosecuting authorities have no discretion to decide whether their case can be proved beyond reasonable doubt, as can the Crown Prosecution Service. The church prosecutors can only decide whether there is a case to answer. In practice, this means that unless it is withdrawn, any complaint of sexual misbehaviour which might be true and has no glaring internal inconsistencies will make it all the way to the graphic public horror of a consistory court.
It is the threat, in fact the certainty, of public humiliation and ridicule for both parties which deters prosecutions that might fail and which explains why only two prosecutions have been brought since 1963. But a woman without the imagination and experience to foresee what the case will be like cannot be stopped.
It is quite possible, though, that this case will be the last of its kind. As well as the personal horror for all the participants, it has, as Jackson said as soon as it was over, done incalculable damage to the Church of England. It has certainly done great damage to the cause of establishment. The fact that sexual misconduct by an Anglican clergyman is an offence under English law, is probably the ugliest and most anachronistic part of the church's established status.
The inflexible nature of the process makes things still worse. The Church of England has just spent at least £200,000 on a case which would probably never have been brought under civil law; and been rewarded with three days of publicity that makes it look ridiculous and sordid. Jackson is not a pompous man, but to be Dean of Lincoln is to hold an office invested with huge pomp, and so huge vulnerability to ridicule.
The money to pay for all this entertainment will have to be found by church-goers, and it is hard to believe they will think it well spent.
In the long term, Verity Freestone may well be remembered as the woman whose fantasies brought home to the Church of England the real cost of establishment.
This was quite wrong, though we all believed it. The real figure was about £80,000, since the lawyers worked (almost) for love.