Patrick Sookhdeo: Why the Barnabas Fund's founder should keep silence

Patrick Sookhdeo outside Swindon Crown Court earlier this year.SWNS

The founder of a major Christian charity is convicted of a sexual assault and on two charges of intimidating witnesses. He's given three-month community sentences for each offence and told to pay costs and a victim surcharge. At his conviction, the judge said: "You will be hugely punished by these convictions and your life will change for good."

Well, not on the face of it. The individual in question is Dr Patrick Sookhdeo and the charity is Barnabas Aid International (BAI), part of Barnabas Fund; both organisations work with persecuted Christians.

Here's the story, and stay with me on this, it's important.

Sookhdeo was arrested in March 2014 and charged in May. Barnabas launched its own investigation and temporarily suspended him, but very briefly; he was reinstated in June 2014 after the Barnabas board decided there was insufficient evidence. It was later claimed that he had used "intimidating and manipulative" language against witnesses.

He was found guilty on February 23, 2015 of all three charges – groping the woman's thigh and breast in his office and intimidating witnesses.

That, you might think, would be that: the end of an often controversial career. However: Barnabas has confirmed to Christian Today that Sookhdeo remains as International Director of BAI; he offered his resignation but the board refused to accept it. He also resigned as a trustee, but was reinstated on June 5.

Here's what a Charity Commission spokesperson told me about that: "In May 2015, the Commission was made aware that the trustees of Barnabas Aid International were considering asking Dr Sookhdeo to serve on their board again. This gave rise to serious regulatory concerns and the Commission met with the trustees to advise that any decision made regarding Dr Sookhdeo's reappointment must be open and transparent, and that they must demonstrate a robust decision making process in the best interests of the charity."

Of the decision to reinstate him, the spokesperson said: "While the Commission recognises that the trustees consider this decision to be in the best interests of the charity, we will continue to monitor the situation closely and take further regulatory action if needs be."

There may, on the face of it, be good reasons for the Commission to "monitor the situation closely". Interviewed by the Church Times on May 8 2015, the vice-chair of BAI, Dr Vinay Samuel, said: "I am satisfied with the board's judgment that Patrick is innocent of the charges made against him."

He said that "the judgment of the court sent a mixed message in the very mild sentence he was awarded" and claimed that there was a conspiracy to destroy Sookhdeo's ministry and undermine the Barnabas Fund.

Samuel – who was speaking in a personal capacity – said that his view was shared by "key Anglican leaders in the UK". He added that "many senior Christian leaders in the non-Western world, who are aware of the charges, have conveyed their dismay . . . and assured him [Sookhdeo] and the BF trustees of their full support".

Sookhdeo recently headlined a Barnabas Fund conference in London aimed at advising UK churches on how to protect themselves against attacks by Islamic terrorists. He's also fronted a petition backed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, aimed at getting the UK to welcome Christians fleeing Islamic State. In other words, for him it's business as usual.

Sookhdeo's lawyers sought leave to appeal against his convictions. However, he changed his mind and withdrew the application. In the words of a statement to Christian Today: "Despite having consulted a leading QC and feeling encouraged that his solicitors expect he would be vindicated at court, Dr Sookhdeo has decided, at least at this stage, not to proceed with his appeal against his conviction."

The statement says: "His lawyers have urged him to consider the effect that an appeal and consequent retrial would have on his health and that of his wife Rosemary, not to mention the emotional stress that they would have to endure over the next one to two years whilst the appeal went through the courts. Dr Sookhdeo would also have to pay very considerable legal fees just to clear his name."

It also says that he is "acutely aware" of the effect continued media coverage would have on the Barnabas Fund and that he is "very thankful and humbled by the continued support he has had for his ministry".

The statement concludes: "With the support and confidence of its trustees, he will continue to serve Barnabas Aid International as its International Director. His expertise on Islam and his unrivalled knowledge of the persecuted Church are needed more than ever."

So here's the question.

What is Barnabas thinking?

There is only one way of reading this story. The Barnabas trustees, "key Anglican leaders in the UK" and "many senior Christian leaders in the non-Western world" have chosen to believe Sookhdeo over the woman he assaulted and over the witnesses to his intimidation. They have disregarded the verdict of the court and set aside all the evidence presented to it. They have run a parallel jury and delivered a "not guilty" verdict.

The effect of this on Sookhdeo's victim can hardly be imagined. The assault itself left her "distressed and unwell". How much more, then, the clear implication that she simply made everything up?

Sookhdeo himself has not, to my knowledge, spoken publicly about what happened. In fairness to him, he may genuinely believe that he did not do the things the court said he did. The evidence is all against him, but in that case, he should take the hit: accept that he has been convicted of serious crimes and that his usefulness to Barnabas is at an end, and try to cope with what's happened as best he can.

However, it may also mean that he did them, but doesn't think they were wrong, or at least not wrong enough for there to be any lasting consequences.

It's the latter possibility which is the most troubling thing of all. It tells the world that sexual assault is not serious. It says that powerful men should not be held to account for what they do to vulnerable women and are above the law. It creates a twisted reality in which the victim has become the victimiser. It belongs to the same philosophical family as every other excuse-laden church cover-up.

Here's what I think should have happened.

Barnabas should not have reinstated Sookhdeo before the court's verdict. It should have waited.

When he was found guilty, it should not have reinstated him before an appeal was heard.

Now that he has decided not to appeal, it should completely sever its connection with him and make a full acknowledgment of the scale of its misjudgment.

Does this mean that if someone's been found guilty of a moral failing, or even a crime, they should never be allowed into ministry again? No. But there has to be profound repentance, an admission of wrongdoing and a process of restoration. As far as I can see, nothing of that is evident here.

At the moment, Sookhdeo is guilty as charged, but by his return to public life no one would ever know it.

Remember what the judge told him? "You will be hugely punished by these convictions and your life will change for good."

So far, not so much.

At this point, Christians have a choice. They can go along with Dr Samuel's persecution narrative which says that the world is out to get a Christian ministry and accept that the court is so obviously mistaken that there isn't a case to answer. Or they can say, "Not in my name."

There are plenty of other organisations supporting the persecuted Church: Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, Open Doors and Aid to the Church in Need among them.

Given that there are alternatives, it's hard to see why Christians who care about justice and the good name of the Church should support Barnabas. I believe it is fundamentally compromised by what has happened, and that no amount of special pleading about Sookhdeo's "expertise on Islam" and "unrivalled knowledge of the persecuted Church" can change that.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.