Friday, 22 May 2009

Kirk plunges into the great gay debate

It took only one hour for the issue that could split the Church of Scotland to surface. After the pomp of the General Assembly's opening ceremony had died down and once the tea cups were put away after the morning break, the first intervention came. Not surprisingly, it came from the hard-liners.

No one doubts that this weekend will be epoch-making for the Kirk. Whether it accepts the appointment of the Rev Scott Rennie - an openly gay minister and divorced father of one - has become its defining issue. Such are the passions aroused that many believe that the Kirk is on the brink of its first schism since the Disruption of 1843, which led to the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

The debate about gay ministers has rumbled on since January, when Mr Rennie's opponents succeeded in referring his appointment to this Assembly for judgment. It has earned acres of newspaper print, provoked passionate radio phone-in debates and kept blogging ministers glued to their computers. The result was, as the Rev Derek Browning told a packed Assembly Hall in Edinburgh: “The eyes of the Church, the eyes of the country and the eyes of the wider world are upon us at this time.”

In the event it was the evangelicals who suffered the first defeat, failing to win a procedural motion that they thought would ensure Mr Rennie's appointment was rescinded. Led by the Presbytery of Lochcarron and Skye, they had hoped to define Church policy on homosexuality by winning an overture (motion) on sexual morality tomorrow evening, before the Assembly, the highest court in the Church, was due to decide Mr Rennie's case.

“There is a danger that we will make a decision [about homosexuality] based on the prevailing culture of our time,” said the Rev Peter B.Park, who moved the procedural amendment. He was defeated, but while some saw the two-thirds majority as an omen of the decisive defeat they hope to inflict on the evangelicals tomorrow, others insisted that the coming vote was far from cut and dried.

Members of Aberdeen's Queen's Cross Church had voted overwhelmingly to appoint Mr Rennie, who lives with his partner at Brechin Cathedral, with Aberdeen Presbytery endorsing their appointment.

The case against his appointment has been led by the evangelical organisation Forward Together. While it is easy to suggest that their anti-gay support is predominantly drawn from far-flung parishes in the north and the Western Isles, and the Orange Order heartlands of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, its theological position - that the Bible does not permit the appointment of a gay minister - has a much broader base.

Edinburgh parish ministers spoke on both sides of the debate, illustrating the depth of the divide. One, the Rev Jerry Middleton, from Davidsons Mains, said that the overture would “affirm and clarify the principles underlying basic Christian morality”. Mr Browning, from Morningside, disagreed, saying: “It is not right to depart from what is right, what is fair and what is just.”

From the anti-gay grouping, there is a sense that the Church authorities had deliberately timed the debate to sit in a “graveyard slot” so they could quietly approve Mr Rennie's appointment. No one now expects the debate to be quiet or brief.

Some who support the evangelicals' theological position have been appalled by the personal attacks on Mr Rennie. Forward Together has already issued a pubic apology to the minister over false claims about his personal life. No sooner had that apology been issued than the Rev Ian Watson, the secretary of the organisation, published a 3,500-word sermon comparing the fight against homosexuality with the fight against the Nazis, which was condemned by many of his peers.

A month ago, the debate was stirred again when Life and Work, the Kirk's house magazine, published a piece in support of Mr Rennie by Muriel Armstrong, its outgoing editor. She said that yesterday's vote did not mean that the evangelicals would be defeated. “I do think there is a moderate majority in the middle. The Church is defined by its moderate majority but whether that moderate majority is represented here I don't know,” she said.

Should the evangelicals be defeated, allies in other churches are ready to reach out to them. The Monthly Record, the magazine of the Free Church of Scotland, appealed to evangelicals to join them in a new united British Presbyterian Church.

Ministers opposed to Mr Rennie said that they would not walk away from the Church, and at all times in the debate they remained respectful to the Moderator. “Wait till Saturday night,” said one commissioner, “then you'll see the fire in their eyes.”

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Art, by Jupiter!

The view from the end of Nicky Wilson’s garden is incomparable. Southwards, over the rooftops of Wilkieston village, loom the Pentland Hills; east, beyond rolling green fields, lies Edinburgh; and towering 30 feet above her head is the vivid yellow bulb of a giant orchid, made of steel aluminium and created by the sculptor Marc Quinn.

“Amazing isn’t it?” said Mrs Wilson cheerily. “Marc positioned Love Bomb opposite the house. He said to me, ‘Scotland has such terrible weather, you’ll want to come out of the house and see something colourful.’”

Mrs Wilson, 42, housewife, mother and owner of nine miniature donkeys, is the moving spirit behind Jupiter Artland, the title she has given to her 80-acre estate in West Lothian.

If the name sounds grandiose, it’s probably deliberate, reflecting an artistic indulgence to match the wildest Victorian folly. In essence she has commissioned more than 20 works by contemporary artists, urging them to respond to the grounds of her 17th-century country home, Bonnington House.

The responses are often of epic proportion. Quinn’s 12-metre orchid is the work of the artist who created the sculpture of Alison Lapper Pregnant for the fifth plinth in Trafalgar Square. In the woods, Temple of Apollo and a head of Sappho represent the last works of the late Ian Hamilton Finlay.

The entrance driveway to the house winds through a terraced landscape moulded by Charles Jencks, a creation so vast it dwarfs even Landform, his best-known work, which fills the grounds in front of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

Even the bollards by the road are by Antony Gormley, and the garden gate, by Ben Tindall, is all twisty vines mingled with blooming metal flowers. “Looks like a flu virus doesn’t it?” Mrs Wilson said. “Don’t write that down.”

This was a great day out. Read more here By Jupiter.

The pic, as many more have been here recently, is by James Glossop. Remember that name. The lad is minor genius.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Paedophile gang found guilty

The Times, Friday, May 8, 2009

A paedophile gang that carried out a series of attacks on children and infants, including a three-month-old baby, were found guilty yesterday at the High Court in Edinburgh in a groundbreaking legal case.

The abusers, including a respected youth leader — who had met Tony Blair and the Queen — a civil servant, a bank clerk and a Church of Scotland elder, were part of the largest paedophile network to have been dismantled in Scotland.

The convictions were the culmination of an 18-month international police operation codenamed Algebra, which has identified a further 70 suspects in 16 regions of Britain and led to action against another 35 suspected child abusers.

Police and the prosecution hailed the verdicts as an important advance in the fight against child sexual abuse. For the first time in Scottish legal history the Crown brought a case of conspiracy to participate in the commission of sexual offences. Advocate Depute Dorothy Bain, QC, asked for a full risk assessment for two members of the gang; Neil Strachan, who has previous convictions for child abuse, and James Rennie, a respected youth leader and gay rights campaigner who met Mr Blair and the Queen in the course of his work.

The move would allow the court to impose an order for lifelong restriction, which would enable a judge to set a minimum sentence, and the men would be freed only when the parole board considered they were no longer a risk to the public.

Lord Bannatyne, the judge, described the gang’s crimes as “utterly horrific”.

The seven men and seven women of the jury sat through nine weeks of evidence, which presented a selection from a total of 125,000 still and video images shared among the eight men on trial, and a log of internet chatroom conversations revealing the extent to which child-sex abuse had engulfed their lives,

These digital records detailed how Strachan and Rennie were able to breach relationships of trust formed with friends, procure and abuse their children, then invite their paedophile circle to assault the children too.

Detective Inspector Stuart Hood, who led Operation Algebra, said that this breach of trust had been horrific and hugely significant, illustrating the plausibility which these serial sex offenders brought to their apparently normal lives.

Rennie was able to abuse the three-month-old baby of close friends without them suspecting him. He gave the child presents, was allowed to change its nappies and babysat for the couple. It was only when police arrived with images of abuse that the couple realised any crime had been committed.

In a statement issued last night the couple said: “For 15 years James Rennie seemed the closest of family friends, and . . . it would be fair to state that he was with us, appearing to give friendship and support, during the most difficult and vulnerable times in our lives. To subsequently learn that he abused our son, and invited others to do the same, has been devastating. As a family we have had to learn to live, and cope with, the effect these horrific events have had.”

Read more of a Times splash here: Guilty men.

This is the follow-up, from today's paper, in which a leading psychologist warns of a new kind of sex criminal emerging from the internet: compulsive disorder.

The blog entry below is the long "backgrounder", which appeared in the Scottish edition, and reveals how Strachan, Rennie and the rest were tracked down.

This was an indescribably shocking case to cover, but there was a grim satisfaction in court that these men were found guilty of conspiracy and are likely to go down for a very long time. As one of the detectives said to me, Scotland will be a safer place because of that verdict. I'm not one to hand out praise to the police every day of the week, but they were absolutely magnificent in this case.

The men who preyed on their friends' kids

The Times, Friday 8 May, 2009

It might have been any working day for Richard Harper, a young IT engineer, as he sat down to mend a failed computer base unit in workshop in Reading. He booted up the machine and began to run tests. Then he stumbled on a folder marked “young boys”, held on a hard drive which had been slotted into the back of the machine. He clicked on an icon. What he found stopped him in his tracks: a shocking, indecent image of a child had appeared on the screen in front of him. Appalled, he called his manager.

This was the moment in August 2007 when the most vicious criminal conspiracy in recent Scottish legal history began to unravel. Over the next 10 months, eight serial child abusers would be picked off by the police, as their casual internet chats and brutal photographic exchanges revealed lives of lurid fantasy and the all-too-real abuse of children and babies.

“It’s a disgusting world they inhabit, a world in which images are a kind of currency, which make the men involved enjoy a kind of wealth,” said Detective Inspector Stuart Hood, who led the investigation for Lothian and Borders Police. “Access to a child is the best currency of all – then they gather round like so many disgusting flies.”

Exposing the conspiracy was to involve an extraordinary international operation, which stretched from police headquarters at Fettes in Edinburgh, and drew in the skills of Scottish and American academics, FBI agents, and Microsoft personnel in San Jose, California revealing on its way a paedophile network which extended all around the world.

But it might never have succeeded had it not been for a single act of forgetfulness by one of the criminal gang. Neil Strachan, the only man among the eight convicted who had previous convictions for sexual assault, worked at the Crown Decorator Centre in Newhaven, Edinburgh. Part of his job was to mix paints on a colour-mixing machine, a computerised system on which he had concealed a portable hard drive.

When his computer broke down, Strachan made his mistake, carelessly delivering it, images and all, into a depot at Haltwhistle in Northumberland, operated by Akzo Nobel, the owners of Crown Paints.

Following the discovery, Strachan himself was among the first to be informed by an outraged manager. With his lover, Colin Slaven, 23, an IT worker, they set about destroying further evidence at their home on Duff Street in Dalry, Edinburgh.

The hard drive, meanwhile, had been returned from the computer service company and despatched to Northumberland Police. Officers confirmed that a significant collection of abusive image images was present, and passed the drive to their colleagues in Scotland. Finally it arrived at Lothian and Borders Police Headquarters. DI Hood of the Serious Crimes Unit was appointed to lead what became known as Operation Algebra, a team of 13 detectives assigned to close down the paedophile network.

As they set about tracing the source of the appalling images they found on his computer, detectives realised that Strachan was at the heart of an internet-based web of child exploitation, trading and manufacturing images of assault, and photographing and distributing his own attacks on children and infants. Just ten days after receipt of the hard drive Strachan was arrested.

He had hidden his identity behind a series of e-mail aliases, most commonly calling himself “marksmith29” or "mark_scott29". Detectives penetrated this secret world, recovering some 7,200 images, a succession of extreme emails and chatlogs which even hardened investigators found deeply shocking. Chief among Strachan’s correspondents was another paedophile, who also disguised himself behind an alias. It soon became apparent that he too was a vicious criminal, a local man with access to a child who had to be caught quickly. That man was James Rennie, 38, a gay rights campaigner.

Rennie led a double life. In public he was “intelligent, articulate, successful”, said Dorothy Bain QC, who led the case for the Crown. In reality he was “someone who had allowed his profound interest in the sexual abuse of children to engulf his entire life, his mind polluted by deviant sexual compulsion.”

As a student he had taken a keen interest in student union politics and when he graduated, Rennie had moved into youth work, rapidly rising to prominence. He managed the Stonewall Youth Project before his appointment as chief executive of LGBT Youth Scotland, an organisation which campaigns for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered young people. Rennie was an opinion former, a mover and shaker. He was consulted by the Scottish Parliament over policy. He met the Queen and went to Downing Street to shake hands with Tony Blair.

In public he seemed whiter than white. Writing in a public sector magazine in autumn 2007, Rennie rounded on the “homophobic bullying” of gay teenagers and said “ignorance is the root of most discrimination”. But at exactly the same moment police had identified "", Rennie’s secret internet account. It contained a vast correspondence revealing how he had used the trusting relationship he enjoyed with close friends to gain access to their three-month old boy.

For more than a year he had assaulted the baby – referred to as Child F throughout the trial - broadcasting one attack over a mobile telephone to one of his perverted friends. He invited these same men to join him in the abuse and published pictures of the attacks in emails to other offenders at on-line galleries he opened at the Photoisland and Photobucket websites.

Rennie’s identity was revealed only after DI’s Hood’s team had invoked the International Mutual Assistance Treaty, which enabled Scottish investigators to request assistance from their American counterparts. An intervention by the FBI enabled the Edinburgh detectives to place a "preservation order" effectively freezing all the contacts, chatlogs and emails recorded on kplover’s email account at the Microsoft offices in San Jose. That one action has since enabled police forces to follow up 70 leads around Britain, half of which have led to arrests, and already some convictions. It also exposed a sinister link between Rennie and Matthew Grasso, a notorious sex offender in Salem, Massachusetts, who was indicted in 2007 for having 150,000 images of child abuse in his home. Rennie had further connections to 300 child abusers in United States, Australia, Germany, Holland and Poland.

In late 2007, detectives were closing in on kplover. But Rennie was sly. From his home computer, he moonlighted on insecure broadband accounts held in nearby houses, so when police believed they had finally traced his computer’s address, they arrived instead at the homes of two of Rennie’s innocent neighbours, who lived streets away from his flat.

Further information from San Jose proved crucial in his arrest. This demonstrated that the kplover account had been used on a handful of occasions by someone who had access to the LGBT Youth premises in Edinburgh. Police then consulted Damian Newrick, a specialist in radio transmission with the Child Expoitation and Online Protection Centre in London. His expertise revealed that Rennie’s home address at Marionville Road would enable him to hotspot onto the insecure wireless networks which had been identified as a source of his account. Police now had two locations for kplover, united by a single criminal. Rennie was arrested on 17 December 2007.

In the weeks after Christmas two more arrests followed, as police follow up leads from the kplover internet account and Rennie’s mobile phone. These conspirators were Ross Webber, 27, a bank clerk from North Berwick, 25 miles east of Edinburgh, and Craig Boath, a slovenly 24-year-old insurance worker from Dundee.

By now more shocking evidence of the relationship between Rennie and Strachan had emerged. On 3 December 2005, Strachan e-mailed Rennie to tell him that his boyfriend, Slaven, “has told me he is into the same as me, so now I have a bit of access”. The Crown would prove that Strachan had meant he had the opportunity to commit an assault on a child, and share images of his attack among his paedophile circle.

Strachan and Slaven preyed on two young children who were occasionally left in their care, who became known in court as Child JL and Child B. The boys’ mother and father who assumed their friends were just a conventional gay couple, a misapprehension which was to have devastating consequences.

Shortly after New Year, Strachan sent Rennie a photograph which became known in court as “the Hogmanay image”. It showed a man assaulting an infant. Though the head of the attacker was not in the frame, Dr Sue Black, a forensic pathologist at Dundee University, identified Strachan through 13 points of similarly on his thumb, which was visible in the photograph. Another photograph showed Strachan abusing the baby’s sleeping elder sibling.

Further expert evidence was called in to convict Strachan, who continued to deny all charges against him. Professor Hany Farid of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire and Dr Miroslav Goljan, of Binghamton University, New York extracted computer data from the images. This established that the Hogmanay image had been taken on a Sony Cybershot. Crucially, the two scientists found that in one of his few “normal” transactions, in which Strachan had sent an image of himself to another worker at his company under his own name, he had used the same Sony camera. With typical charmlessness, the picture he had sent to shock a female colleague showed his body disfigured by shingles scars.

The cases against Glaswegians Neil Campbell, 46, a church elder, 40-year-old civil servant John Milligan and John Murphy, 44, the last man rounded up, emerged from the wealth of chatlogs and e-mails in police possession, and from the numbers on Rennie’s mobile phone. A ninth man, Lachlan Anderson, were arrested by police, co-operated fully with their enquiries, and has already received a 4-year jail term.

There is no doubt that Milligan – who had 75,000 images of sexual abuse - along with the other conspirators will face many years in prison. Murphy and Campbell’s caches of images were smaller, and like Slaven they will be jailed for the lesser crimes of making and distributing images, though police are hopeful that the judge will apply the highest possible tariff.

These sentences will be passed next month. For the families of Child F, Child B and Child JL, there will be no release.