The Paedophile Vicar of Beguildy

By Amy Turner
The Sunday Times

December 27, 2008

The church at Beguildy

A Welsh hamlet gave up its darkest secret when its priest was jailed for owning the most sickening collection of child pornography. Why did villagers fail to spot the warning signs? Photographs: Leo Maguire

Beguildy is a hamlet like any other in the valleys of mid-Wales. Sprinkled along the B4355, there are fewer than 100 homes here. It is so remote there is no mobile-phone reception; the public phone box contains only torn-out cables and rubbish.

There are ramshackle barns full of greying silage, empty, tumbledown farm cottages, a school, a post office and a pub. On a hill at the centre of the village is the church, St Michael’s. Beguildy is a tightknit community. In the village way, everyone knows everyone’s business. Or they thought they did until last January, when a terrible secret was revealed.

The reverend Richard Hart, 59, had been Beguildy’s vicar since 2001. His parish took in four other surrounding villages. He was chairman of governors at the village school, where his wife, Julia, 41, worked as a teaching assistant. They had five children; they ran a weekly toddlers’ group at the vicarage, as well as several Sunday-school and after-school church groups. He had christened many of the village children. In hindsight, say villagers, Hart was odd — socially awkward, and the family kept itself to itself. But he was the vicar. What reason could anyone have to distrust him?

So, last January, when police arrived at the vicarage with a search warrant, everyone was shocked. Everyone, that is, except the vicar’s wife. The police told Julia they were there on suspicion that her husband possessed sexual images of children. Barely batting an eyelid, she said: “Oh, I thought you were here for something serious.”

The vicarage is empty now. Set back from the main road, at the bottom of a lane screened by trees, it is the largest home in the village. It’s getting dark and starting to rain as I approach. One of the Harts’ neighbours — let’s call him Phil — lets me in. He goes in to feed the cat, which still lives in the porch. He also has keys for the green VW Polo left behind. It belongs to the Harts’ eldest daughter. Phil is angry that the shame of all this fell on the Hart children. He often used to chat with the eldest two as they got off the school bus.

During the raid on January 18, the police discovered a total of 56,832 sexual images of children. Some were of local children, others had been downloaded from the internet. Richard Hart was arrested and, in September, sentenced to 3? years in prison for taking, making and possessing sexual images of children. Such images are graded one to five in terms of their severity. Hart possessed 52,240 in category one, 2,419 in category two, 684 in category three, 1,445 in category four and 44 in category five.

Category one is “a naked child posed sexually”. Category five, says Detective Inspector Diane Davies of the Powys police force’s public protection unit, is worse than most people could conceive of. The police who view these images receive mandatory counselling afterwards. Over the internet, Hart spent thousands of pounds on images of children as young as four. Police also found 270 stories about child rape on Hart’s computer, half about incest. He has been suspended from the Church in Wales and will remain on the sex offenders’ register for life.

Julia admitted to viewing some of the images with Hart as a precursor to sex. She was cautioned, and will sign on the register for two years. The Harts’ children, aged from 5 to 17, have been taken into care.

Media interest was fierce after Hart’s arrest and sentencing, and locals are wary of the press. Many view speaking about the case as akin to speaking against the church itself, and they are understandably cautious about protecting their children. No media have been allowed inside the vicarage — until now. Court documents described it as an “Aladdin’s cave” of paedophiliac material. Inside, the innocuous signs of everyday life only heighten a creeping unease. There is a row of boots in the porch, and two empty hanging baskets. A heron wind chime with a cruel beak and broken entrails swings from one like a hex.

“If these walls could talk…” says Phil. In Hart’s former study his desk is missing its computer. The phone remains, a few pens and parish newsletters. The shelves are bare but for an ancient, rotting Bible. On the floor is a pile of mildewy parish records. The hall carpets are covered with leaves. The large sitting room is decorated like a nursery, with a child’s frieze on the walls. Room after room is decorated for children — not just the children’s bedrooms. Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh, astronauts and constellations. Blu-Tack stains, where pictures were stuck to the walls, are everywhere. In the bathroom, the curtains are decorated with cartoon hedgehogs. Hart is said to have kept enlarged images of naked children in here.

Most chilling of all is the master bedroom. Here, the impressions of the bed and other furniture can still be seen in the carpet. The wallpaper is torn, and clots of Blu-Tack remain, even stretching behind the invisible bed head. Police found the conjugal bed piled with soft toys and dolls, and a bizarre mixture of photographs, postcards and clippings of children and childish images on the walls. These were all seized by police.

Diane Davies was present at the January raid. I ask her about the Blu-Tack. She tells me: “Bear in mind that a vicarage isn’t an ordinary house. There were toddlers’ groups, and people who were seeking pastoral comfort needed to feel that it was a vicarage.” There weren’t toddlers’ groups in the bedroom, surely? “No. I think the best thing to say is that nudity was commonplace upstairs.”

Julia, the vicar’s wife and a teaching assistant, knew about Hart’s interests, but said she failed to see the harm in it. “If parents were happy to have their children on the internet in this manner it wasn’t anyone else’s business. It was a matter for them and no one else,” she said in her police interview. Later, she changed her statement to say she was distressed and shocked.

Hart, in turn, claimed he needed the images to help him gain and sustain an erection, and once he began collecting them he was unable to stop. Of the most serious images he said: “Some proved to be interesting in a rather gruesome way.” For legal reasons, exact details of Hart’s offences cannot be reported. But to give a flavour, Diane Davies tells me: “In my job, I’ve sat across the table from children who’ve told me they’ve been raped. Yet I found the Hart case the most challenging I’ve ever dealt with. A colleague of mine, an officer of 20 years’ experience, was reduced to tears.”

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest Hart knew his interest in child pornography was wrong. His computer user name was “church10”; his password “Peter12” — a reference to the first and second epistles of Peter in the New Testament, which warn against lust. Randolph Thomas, the Archdeacon of Brecon, advises me against trying to unravel the workings of Hart’s mind. He was a “very complex man”, he says with understatement. At his hearing, Hart admitted 12 charges of making indecent images of children, four of taking indecent photographs, and five of possessing such images in offences dating back to 1991. But in November he lodged an appeal against his sentence. It was rejected.

Beguildy, once a prosperous sheep-farming village, is an insular community — more so since the Hart case. Heads swivel as I enter the Radnorshire Arms. “You’re not [secretly] recording us, are you?” asks one man. “No, of course not. That wouldn’t be nice.” “Well, we had a ‘nice’ vicar, if you catch my meaning.”

Though a few people do finally agree to talk, none want to be named — including the couple I stay with in the village, whom I’ll call Mr and Mrs Jones. They once considered the Harts friends.

The vicar and his wife called in at the Joneses’ house for a cup of tea after his arrest and bail in January. Looking at a collage of photographs on the wall in the kitchen, Hart’s eye was drawn to a harmless snap of four grandchildren in a bathtub. “See,” he said, “you take pictures of naked children. I don’t see why I’m in trouble for it.”

They say he seemed good with his own children, particularly the two who had severe learning difficulties. Oddly, says Mrs Jones, it’s the villagers who don’t go to church who have felt the most betrayed. How is the community coping, does she think? “Oh, it’s all forgotten now. Done and dusted.” But, talking to a young couple in the pub, it’s easy to understand why it might be better to forget than face the truth. This couple have two children at the school. “We were horrified,” they say. “We know he had pictures of local children. We just have to put it behind us in the hope that none of the pictures was of our kids. We’re as sure as we can be that they weren’t.”

Warning signs went unheeded. Once, Hart was admonished by parents for photographing girls skinny-dipping under a bridge in a nearby stream during one of his after-school church groups. One of the girls, now an adult, said: “It’s something that’s played on my mind since. There were some photographs taken… you know, the fact he was hiding us away was quite secretive and suspicious.”

Many non-churchgoers barely knew him. He wasn’t the type of vicar to make friendly house calls. “He wasn’t a mixer,” is the constant refrain. “A very private man — his wife was the same.”

But some knew him well. One church official is a retired headmaster of Beguildy school. His wife also used to teach there. The couple, whom I’ll call Mr and Mrs Parry, have grown-up children and have agonised over how they might have detected trouble. “Looking back, it all makes sense,” says Mrs Parry. “[My husband] could never raise him on the phone to talk about church business. Of course now we know that’s because he was always on the internet.”

Hart refused offers of help for children’s events. “We thought he just liked to do things his own way,” says Mrs Parry. “But when it came to it, he didn’t have a clue. It was a shambles.”

At one nativity play, Hart stood in the pulpit, allocating the children’s roles then and there. There had been no rehearsals. “He came to the service with a box of costumes, and got them to put them on over their clothes. Then he’d direct the play as it was happening: ‘Now, Mary, you would walk over there, and Joseph, you would say this,’ and so on. It was bizarre,” Mrs Parry says. “It was as though he wanted to control everything.” At his first harvest festival, the children ran amok. “He just stood at the front, watching and smiling that weird smile of his.”

At a parish council meeting afterwards, Hart was astonished that anyone in the congregation could have thought his service anything less than perfect. “It was as though he couldn’t see any consequences to his actions,” they say.

The fixed smile crops up repeatedly in locals’ descriptions of Hart. The pub landlord, Peter Thompson, remembers locals describing house calls after a family bereavement. “He’d turn up and say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ with this grin on his face. I don’t think he could help it. It was just the way he looked.” By all accounts, Hart was highly intelligent, but socially people found him hard to relate to. “There was no empathy,” says Mrs Jones. “He had the look of a child who’d told a lie. And there was something otherworldly about him, as if he wasn’t there.”

Until his sentencing in September, nobody in the village knew the scale of Hart’s collection of child pornography, nor details of the catalogue of evidence against him. “It was a terrible shock,” says Mrs Parry. “[My husband] came home furious one afternoon because someone had commented, ‘Surely you must have known, spending all that time with the vicar?’ Yes, we knew he was a bit odd, and we knew he liked to spend a lot of time with children. But we like spending time with children. Could we have known he was a paedophile? We do ask ourselves that, and I suppose to an extent we blame ourselves for what happened. But how can you tell what’s going on in people’s own homes?”

The couple describe Julia, who at 41 is 18 years Hart’s junior, as “very immature”. She is said to be living with her mother in London. She has had limited contact with her children. The general belief in Beguildy is that she will stick with Richard Hart when he is released.

In 1973, before he was a vicar, Richard Hart was a computer programmer in Croydon. In 1979, aged 30, he moved to Wales and gained a BA in theology at university in Lampeter. He then took a Master of Philosophy in Eastern Christian Studies at Oriel College, Oxford, and became assistant curate at a church in Sketty, Wales, in 1985. He was ordained as a priest in 1986 and became priest in charge of Llanbister, near Beguildy, the following year.

Julia was born into a wealthy family in Fulham, southwest London. Her father was a judge. She attained average O-level results at a prestigious London prep school and went on to train as a teaching assistant at a college in Reading. Her family owned a property in Knighton, the town eight miles from Beguildy, where Julia was staying when she met Hart.

According to local gossip, Richard had recently been jilted by his long-term girlfriend, who didn’t want to be a vicar’s wife. Julia actively pursued him. Hart attempted to reunite with his ex-girlfriend but was rebuffed. He married Julia in 1989. They relocated to the parish of Dymock, Gloucestershire, in 1992, finally settling at Beguildy in 2001. Investigations by police and the church have yielded no evidence of any sexual offences by Hart in any of his former parishes.

However, some images seized during the Beguildy raid dated back to 1973. Did Hart plan his career to provide opportunities to act on his sexual desires? Detective Superintendent Graham Hill, the head of the behavioural analysis unit at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop), says: “Research indicates that people who have a sexual interest in children are aware of their desire from an early age — the majority before they reach 18. As a result, some choose career paths that bring them into contact with children. Some will progress to professions that exert a degree of power over children.”

For this reason, sexual offending is not uncommon among clergy. But then it is not uncommon in any profession. There are 31,392 registered sex offenders in the UK, though no figures exist for purely child-related offences. Derek Green of the sexual-crime consultancy Ray Wyre Associates says: “Paedophiles are drawn to positions of control. And the more powerful they get, the more they get away with it, because children are less likely to report those in authority.” This is the saddest fact — Hart’s offences went unnoticed for so long because of the respect the community, and its children, naturally had for their vicar.

Hart, like every vicar in the Anglican church, underwent a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check prior to his ordination, and in his capacity as governor of the local school, as Julia did as a teaching assistant. But because they had no previous convictions, no alarm was raised. The Archdeacon of Brecon says: “We do our utmost in the process of selection to identify certain qualities within individuals, but these people are clever at masking their weaknesses.” Here is the loophole. If they have no criminal history, there is nothing to stop a person with sinister intentions from working with children, other than the fallible instinct of their employers.

Canon Robert Jones, the child-protection officer for Brecon and Swansea, says every precaution is taken to safeguard against child abuse in the Church in Wales. But no system is foolproof, and faith can be abused. “As a Canon and a worshipper, I would trust implicitly that a vicar wouldn’t behave in this way. We have to, don’t we, to leave our children in their care?” The alternative is undesirable. Diane Davies says: “What you don’t want to end up with is a system where people are mistrusted because they don’t conform to people’s idea of ‘normal’. What is normal anyway?”

If the church couldn’t have foreseen the crisis, it responded to it quickly. Immediately after Hart’s arrest, church leaders began working closely and openly with police, asking the public protection unit, a police body, to review its child-protection policies. A nationwide historical review is under way of cases of sexual offences in the church.

Margaret Kennedy, of the Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors organisation, believes the church could target the problem of sexual offending by clergy simply by changing its prayer language. “Churches won’t openly mention the viewing of pornography or paedophilia: they’re running scared. You will rarely hear intercessionary prayers along the lines of ‘Let us pray for victims of child pornography.’ It’s important to name and shame these issues; it desensitises them.”

Hart’s future in the church is to be decided by tribunal next month, but the archdeacon says it is “highly unlikely — I may say impossible — that anyone with an offence of this nature would be allowed to continue to work in the church”.

There’s a much-repeated view in Beguildy that it was “only pictures”. It’s true that Hart was never charged with any “contact” sex offences; nor was Julia. But every photograph Hart took, bought and archived in his massive collection represents a real child who has been sexually abused.

“To put it in context,” says Davies, “if you filled the Emirates stadium with children, you’re getting close to the scale of Richard Hart’s collection. And every seat would have an abused child on it.”

There is some good news. One little girl who featured in several of Hart’s category-five pictures was identified in America. Police found she had already been taken into care.

A new vicar will be installed in the parish next year, and locals say he will have his work cut out regaining their trust. The church will redecorate the vicarage. They also intend to replace the slate roof. “Doesn’t need reroofing,” mutters Phil, as we leave. But perhaps it’s symbolic. As Emerson once wrote, “A man builds a fine house; and now he has a task for life. He is to furnish, watch, show it, and keep it in repair the rest of his days.”


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