Vicar found guilty of groping a sleeping passenger during a transatlantic British Airways flight

A vicar who groped a sleeping passenger during a transatlantic flight on a British Airways jet could be put behind bars.

By Peter Tennick
Wednesday, 26 June, 2019, 16:27
Reverend Peter McConnell.

Reverend Peter McConnell sexually assaulted an American PHD student under a blanket on an overnight flight from Philadelphia to Heathrow after making "sleazy comments".

The 64-year-old clergyman downed up to ten small bottles of wine, asking the victim if he had been to "titty bars" and questioned whether he was "mischievous".

During the flight, McConnell talked about God and asked his victim for forgiveness after the sex assault.

The vicar, who had been in the USA to visit his sister after she suffered a serious illness, denied one charge of sexual assault and has been tried by a jury at Newcastle Crown Court.

He claimed he had chatted about "mindfulness" with the stranger and denied any touching.

After around four hours deliberation jurors found him guilty.

The clergyman must now sign the sex offenders register but will not be sentenced until next month, after reports are prepared and the "risk" he poses can be assessed.

After the guilty verdict, prosecutor Andrew Espley told the court McConnell has no previous convictions but the former Northumbria Police chaplain was asked to "hand in his credentials" from the post with the force in 2014 after there was an investigation into a matter which was not proceeded with.

Judge Paul Sloan QC said McConnell could have bail until the next hearing, with conditions he resides at a particular address and co-operates with the probation service during the preparation of a pre-sentence report.

Judge Sloan warned the clergyman he could be remanded in custody if he breached bail and added: "You should understand, the fact I am adjourning sentence and the fact I am directing the preparation of a pre-sentence report is not an indication of the sentence that will be imposed."

Mr Espley had told jurors the vicar had been "drinking heavily" during the flight and had moved to a seat right beside the student as a child kept kicking the back of his own.

The court heard McConnell, who was travelling with his godson, tried to engage the stranger in conversation, which the student found "odd".

Mr Espley added: "Mr McConnell said his godson had got really drunk in South Carolina and had been to a titty bar.

"He asked the complainant if he had ever been to a titty bar. He said he hadn't and felt uncomfortable about the conversation.

"It was an odd thing, you may think for anyone to say to a stranger on a flight but not as odd as what he was going to go on to say, at one point talking about masturbation and saying it was a way to relive stress."

The court heard the student had "faked a laugh", which prosecutors say was through embarrassment, and McConnell continued chatting to him.

When the student began to tire, McConnell covered him with a blanket, which the victim initially thought was kind.

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McConnell, who was vicar at St Helen's Church, in Longhorsley, Northumberland, then sexually assaulted him when after he fell asleep.

Mr Espley said: "As he was drifting off to sleep, he felt Mr McConnell's hand under the blanket, on his right knee, thigh area, massaging his thigh, knee. That lasted 10 to 15 seconds.

"He said he must have fallen asleep. He recalls jolting awake and when he did he looked down and could see Mr Connell's hand had stopped groping his knee, thigh area and was rubbing his penis area, rubbing side to side, over the top of his pants."

The court heard the student "started crying" when he confided in his mum what had happened and alerted the authorities.

Mr Espley said McConnell admitted to police he had engaged in conversation with the stranger during the flight and that he had had around four small bottles of wine but denied any inappropriate touching.

Speaking from the witness box, the student said McConnell, who he thought may have been a teacher had about "five to ten" little bottles of wine, where were brought to him by flight staff.

He said: "He had kept trying to talk to me while I was watching the in-flight entertainment system."

The student said he found some of McConnell's conversation "really disgusting" and that he was "shocked, disgusted and disturbed" after he was touched under the blanket.

He added: "He kept trying to talk to me, wanting to apologise.

"He wanted to shake my hand, started blaming the alcohol, saying he was drunk, trying to get me to forgive him. I said no.

"He kept trying to shake my hand, he twice tried to hug me, I pulled away.

"He tried to kiss the hair above my ear, which was very disturbing."

The student said McConnell, who he thought was a teacher, then started to deny that he had touched him.

He said McConnell had mentioned he enjoyed teaching children and talked about religion a lot and God.

The student said he asked for McConnell's contact details when the flight ended as he was "worried about the safety of the children he taught".

He said he realised McConnell's profession when he spotted the word vicarage in the email address he gave him.

The student said he reported what had happened to the airline and the Church of England and the police became involved as a result.