A disgraced former Presbyterian minister caught with indecent images of children and who tried to have his identity withheld from publication, has been placed under a Probation Order for two years.
Matthew Simpson (59), whose address until recently remained on court papers as his former manse, but now resides at Fernisky Road, Antrim.
He admitted three counts each of possessing and distributing indecent images of children, with offending occurring between August 2016 and February 2017, while he was minister of two Cookstown churches.
Police conducted a search of Simpson’s manse and seized a laptop from his study.
Six indecent child images were found, one at Category A and five at Category C.
He was arrested, replying no comment to all questions, but admitted the offences at arraignment before Dungannon Crown Court.
Defence counsel described Simpson as “a man hitherto of impeccable character. Now there is an indelible stain on that character”.
He added his client had “a mere handful of images. Offending is at the bottom of the ladder in terms of magnitude and gravity”.
A pre-sentence report found Simpson still distances himself to some degree from his offending.
While acknowledging the number of images was low, Judge Brian Sherrard QC pointed out every such image is abusive and the possession and particularly the exchange of such material, perpetuates the exploitation of vulnerable children.
Addressing Simpson, he said, “At the time of offending, you were serving as a Presbyterian minister and enjoyed a spotless reputation … your actions have provoked a seismic fall from grace and there has been an exceptionally high price to pay in terms of your career and calling, standing in the community, family life and health. But these were self-inflicted unlike the children who unfortunately and sadly are abused for the purposes of this imagery. The court’s primary concern will always be for the welfare of children caught up in this terrible cycle of abuse.”
It was heard Simpson engaged with another "correspondent" requesting images of a young person and in conversation he adopted a pseudonym.
Judge Sherrard noted this "pointed to culpability".
Risk factors were said to remain and Simpson continues to lack consequential thinking.
“Your offending is of concern to me,” said the judge. “I feel a need to reassure the public that this offending will not be repeated or have an opportunity to progress … the protection of the community persuades me you ought to be encouraged in such rehabilitation.”
He stated the distribution of child abuse imagery will very routinely lead to immediate custody, but took on board Simpson’s guilty plea and the steps he's has taken of his own volition to address his behaviour through counselling.
A two-year Probation Order was imposed and Judge Sherrard warned if Simpson failed to fully comply with this, he would be returned to court and resentenced.
He will remain on the Sex Offender Register for five years.
The Presbyterian Church was asked why Simpson’s congregations were not formally notified and 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 had there been, they applied only to media.
The church was asked why the senior official provided confirmation to Simpson’s lawyers of his congregations not being told of the charges.
A spokesperson replied, simply stating this was correct and the official: “Confirmed in correspondence that Mr Simpson’s former congregations had not been informed of the charges against him.”
Back in September, at Simpson’s first appearance before Dungannon Magistrates Court, his lawyers argued for anonymity, contending he could self-harm if publicly named. Two psychiatric reports were provided, neither of which found risk to the statutory threshold.
Concerned on public knowledge of, the defence furnished a letter from a senior member of the Presbyterian Church confirming Simpson’s congregations were not 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, which the judge stressed had to be on an emergency basis.
This took some time and necessitated repeated prompting by Press to lodge the relevant paperwork.
With the arraignment at Dungannon Crown Court swiftly 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 stood this down and launched a second anonymity application at Dungannon Crown Court, which Press again opposed.
His lawyer moved to this based on the same medical evidence as before.
Judge Brian Sherrard QC acknowledged Simpson’s distress, but he pointed out just about every defendant facing court suffers similar symptoms, and ruled in favour of Press. The judicial review was abandoned.