Paedophile was set free to rape young children in their homes

Police and church decisions come under scrutiny as leaked documents reveal how a minister was left to prey on boys for years despite warnings

Antony Barnett, investigations editor
Sunday July 23, 2006
The Observer


Police and church authorities are facing serious questions over how a married priest suspected of being a paedophile was set free to carry out a horrific series of sexual assaults involving hundreds of children across the country.
Simon Thomas, 44, a minister at the United Reformed Church (URC) in Hythe, Hampshire, raped boys as young as 11 in their homes while their parents were out. An Observer investigation has established that most of the offences occurred after Hampshire police and church leaders had been warned of his activities, almost three years ago. It has also emerged that Thomas committed some of his worst offences while he was free on bail, following his arrest in July 2005. The police were alerted to his most recent child abuse last summer, after the mother of a 13-year-old found out that Thomas had been telling her son to perform sex acts to be watched via a webcam. He was arrested while being chaplain for a Boys' Brigade trip in Devon.

Thomas, who has four children of his own, was released on bail last July, but continued to carry out a string of offences, including twice raping a young boy in his own home. In February the police were forced to rearrest Thomas after they realised how great a risk he posed. Most of Thomas's victims were groomed through internet chatrooms and police discovered he kept a spreadsheet with 1,500 names - more than 300 of them under the age of 16. So horrific were his crimes that on Friday he is expected to be given a life sentence at Southampton Crown Court. In June Thomas pleaded guilty to 35 counts of child abuse, but police believe the number of his victims runs into the hundreds.

Thomas may never have been able to conduct many of his offences had church leaders and Hampshire police acted differently more than three years ago.

Internal church documents passed to The Observer reveal that the disciplinary committee of the URC received a warning about Thomas's criminal sexual activities in August 2003. The document states the church had received allegations about Thomas 'with regard to involvement in gay "chat rooms" on the internet and meeting young men as a result of these chat room contacts. Allegations also include sexual liaisons with young men which may include minors.'

A URC internal investigation did not find any evidence of child abuse. At the hearing Thomas admitted to visiting gay chat rooms with a false identity and using 'vulgar language'. The minister claimed he was simply pursuing his interests in 'computers, young people and sexuality'. The church authorities subsequently allowed him to continue practising as a minister.

The church did notify the police, who interviewed Thomas in 2003, but he denied any wrongdoing. The police decided they could not act on an anonymous allegation and he was released without charge.

The Observer has discovered a series of questions about the standard of the investigation. Despite being told he was using gay chat rooms to meet boys and have sex with them, neither the church nor the police checked his computers in 2003. In fact, after its 2003 investigation, the church gave Thomas a role as a liaison officer with the gay community. The church also gave him the green light to visit gay chat rooms as long as he did not lie about his age or job. It was through these websites he groomed his victims

A Hampshire police spokesman defended the force: 'In 2003 we received an anonymous warning about Thomas that consisted of unsubstantiated allegations. We investigated the claims but could find no hard evidence against him. We decided that, given the lack of evidence, it would not be right to seize his computers.'

He admitted that the police would have taken soundings from the church authorities, but denied that Thomas's position as a priest affected their actions. In hindsight, he said, the decision to release him on bail was probably a mistake, but at the time it was necessary for a proper forensic investigation of his computer to be undertaken and this can take several weeks.

The URC told The Observer: 'The church takes abuse of this nature with ultimate seriousness and is committed to the protection of children and young people - a commitment that is embodied in an exhaustive policy of child protection. The church has cooperated fully with the relevant authorities in their thorough investigations of his conduct.'

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