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Monday, January 19, 2015

Sexual Abuse and Consent: UK Judge gets it wrong

The BBC has reported:

Stuart Kerner, 44, from Kent, received an 18-month suspended sentence for two counts of sexual activity with a child by a person in a position of trust.

While the sentence seems quite low for the offence, what is most concerning is the context of the sentence. This is a case where a teacher was in a position of trust in a school. He entered into a relationship with a 16 year old student at the time that his wife miscarried with their second child. More can be found on the story on the BBC.

Stuart Kerner

The most disconcerting part of the story is, however, a view that the judge felt the child had become obsessed with Kerner and thus, groomed Kerner. In other words, the court is putting responsibility for the sexual abuse on the victim. Such a view states that the obligations of a person in authority can be modified based upon the child's behaviours. Let's expand the thought - if a child is highly oppositional, rude and perhaps even violent, then violence by a teacher in return might be permissible. But that is not allowed because we expect the adult to be able to manage their emotions, stay in control and respond in a measured and safe manner.

In this case, the failure of the adult, Kerner, to control himself is being excused because of his personal circumstances and the obsessive behaviours of the child. This is a very dangerous line of reasoning that, if applied in a variety of other criminal matters, diminishes the responsibility of the perpetrator and increases the responsibility of the victim.

This decision also missed the mark when the child is considered. This was her first sexual experience. She was 15 when the relationship appears to get underway. Her notion of relationship, sex, boundaries and even love will be highly underdeveloped. Her executive functioning is that of a 15 - 16 year old which means that she is more likely to be influenced by emotion and impulsivity than rational, long term thinking. Kerner, on the other hand, at 44 years of age, should be expected to have the maturity to work his way though both his emotions and the responsibilities of his position.

The judge has also failed to understand that Kerner was part of a system responsible for protecting children. Schools are meant to be safe places. Teachers are meant to be guardians of that safety. Kerner did not offer that. He compromised it for this student but also for all students by making a behavioural statement about what is acceptable.

I have no doubt that Kerner has paid quite a price for his behaviour. He is not able to work with children meaning that his career is in shambles. He has been subject to a great deal of public media. But these are all the result of choices that he made as an adult. There are the unspoken victims as well - his family, children as well the school, colleagues and the other children who had been aware of the relationship which would have created confusion for them.

This case matters because the courts have made a statement about responsibility that needs to be challenged. 


  1. Like most of the people getting up in arms about this case, I think you are taking the judge's comments out of context, or probably have only read the sensationalised media reports. She made it quite clear that Kerner had a responsibility to exercise restraint, in fact she stated that explicitly in her comments. And to use your analogy of a teacher hitting a pupil, of course violence is never acceptable but if you hit someone who is being 'highly oppositional, rude and perhaps even violent' towards you, you are likely to get a more lenient sentence than if you hit someone for no apparent reason. The behaviour of everyone involved in a situation is usually taken into account.

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  2. Thank you for your comment. I accept that there is a risk of exaggerating the implications of this case. But I did not feel that the judge's comments took away the larger implications of the decision, particularly the responsibility on the victim.

  3. I agree it's a delicate line to walk, but it's a funny one isn't it? If the teacher hadn't 'given in to temptation' and the girl had persisted she could've ended up in serious trouble for her behaviour. A boy at my son's school was suspended for something similar. Yet because the teacher succumbed to his baser instincts the girl is excused any responsibility for her own actions? Even the prosecution said the girl was 'not blameless'. That doesn't mean she should be blamed for HIS actions but she should be held responsible for her own.