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Former Church minister who distributed child sex images named despite anonymity bid

Court lady justice

Press have won a second legal challenge against a former Presbyterian minister’s court bid to be granted anonymity in respect of child sexual image charges, which he has now admitted.

He can now be named as Matthew Simpson (69) whose address continues to show on court papers as his former manse.

During a hearing before Dungannon Magistrates’ Court in September, Simpson’s lawyers argued for anonymity on the basis he could self-harm if publicly named, submitting two psychiatric reports, neither of which found risk to the statutory threshold.

The defence referenced a letter furnished by a very senior member of the Presbyterian Church confirming Simpson’s congregations had not been told of the charges.

Press challenged the application while the defence insisted Simpson’s rights take “precedence and priority” over those of media.

The judge ruled in favour of press stating: “I’m not satisfied this case warrants diversion from the principle of open justice.”

The defence indicated their intention to judicially review this decision, which the judge stressed had to be on an emergency basis.

But this took some time and necessitated repeated prompting by press to lodge the relevant paperwork.

With the case now transferred to Dungannon Crown Court and the arraignment date approaching, press contacted both the Office of the Lady Chief Justice (OLCJ) and the defence lawyers, enquiring as to the judicial review position.

OLCJ replied stating no application had been received while the defence said no date had been allocated.

Eventually the matter was listed at High Court days before formal arraignment.

The defence then requested this be stood down and launched a second application for anonymity at crown court, which press again opposed.

Simpson appeared by video-link from his solicitor’s office pleading guilty to three counts each of possessing and distributing indecent images of children. Offending occurred between August 2016 and February 2017, while he was minister of two Cookstown churches.

While remaining calm and answering the charges clearly, Simpson became noticeably agitated and tearful as his lawyer moved to the anonymity application, based on the same medical evidence as before.

Judge Brian Sherrard QC, acknowledging Simpson’s distress, pointed out just about every defendant facing court suffers similar symptoms.

Having heard arguments from both sides, he ruled in favour of press.

The case has been adjourned while pre-sentence reports are prepared.

Simpson was ordered to sign the sex offender register ahead of being remanded on bail until next month.

The judicial review has been abandoned and the defence have confirmed no further applications will be made for anonymity.

The Presbyterian Church was asked why Simpson’s congregations were not formally notified to which a spokesperson replied: “It is exceptionally important to be very clear from the outset that on both a societal level and from a biblical position, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland condemns absolutely, and without hesitation, all forms of abuse against children. This includes the viewing or distributing of abusive or indecent images, and everything related to it.”

It was contended church authorities stood down Simpson from all duties when police investigations began, ensuring no involvement with the congregations from that point onwards, “even though there was no clarity as to the nature of the investigations, or the issues involved.”

When police had sufficient evidence and the offences became known, Simpson was suspended in line with procedures and chose to resign.

The spokesperson contended court-imposed reporting restrictions meant they were unable to name Simpson or say anything that might indirectly identify him. Steps were however taken to ensure he was no longer involved in ministry.

It was also noted Simpson previously denied all charges.

Press pointed out there were never any court-imposed reporting restrictions and even if there were, they applied only to media.

The church was asked why the senior church official provided Simpson’s lawyers with clarification of his congregations not being told of the charges.

There has been no response by the time of publishing.

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