A vicar who spied on and filmed a mother and daughter and two teenage girls in his parish escaped jail yesterday.
Reverend Richard Lee, 49, used secret cameras to record his unsuspecting victims and kept the footage on a laptop.
The married father of two, who was vicar of two churches in Somerset at the time, was found out when the images were discovered. He was arrested and yesterday given eight months in prison after previously pleading guilty to eight charges of voyeurism and 18 of making indecent images.
But at Bristol Crown Court Judge Neil Ford QC suspended the sentence for two years because of Lee’s previous “good character”. He said: “I have agonised about my public duty in this case and have come to this conclusion – that while sentences of imprisonment must be imposed they can be suspended. I am able to do this because of all I know about you and your positive good character. It is right to say that nothing I can do by way of punishment will come close to the dreadful loss that you have brought upon yourself. You have lost your family and your calling as a clergyman.”
Lee carried out the offences over a ten-year period while working at two Somerset village churches – St Augustine’s in Locking and St Mary’s in Hutton. During that time he was also based at a church in Gillingham, Kent.
Last year officers arrived at the Church of England vicar’s home near Weston-super-Mare and conducted a search of the house. A number of computers and hard drives were seized, containing 400 category one images, 84 category one videos – the lowest level of the scale used to measure their severity. But Lee also had 51 category two images, three category three images and four images and one video in category four – the second highest level.
The images, the majority of which were deleted, featured a woman and three girls aged under 16 – none of the images were believed to have been shared. Lee was arrested at his parent’s house in Bodmin, Cornwall, where he immediately admitted the charges during interview.
Richard Posner, prosecuting, told the court: “He filmed them at a time when they believed, thought and trusted they had privacy. He filmed a number of images all for his own sexual gratification and also searched for images of child abuse and made copies of these images. He was a pillar of the community.”
Robin Shellard, defending, said that Lee blamed himself daily for his actions.
He said: “He appears in front of this court a truly broken man. He has, through his own folly and more importantly, his own criminality, lost everything he held most dear through that particular weakness that revealed itself some 10 years ago. He has, and does, lay no blame on anybody but himself and he punishes himself every day. His sense of betrayal is replete.”
He added that a number of parishioners had written letters in support of the former vicar.
“Those who wrote those letters struggle to reconcile the man who tried to do so much good with somebody who has behaved with such a degree of wickedness,” he said. “His sense of betrayal extends to his friends, family and all those he has ministered to and who look up to him and now feel so let down.”
Lee remained emotionless throughout the sentencing, where Judge Ford ordered him to attend the Thames Valley Sexual Offenders Programme. He was also told to sign the Sexual Offenders Register for 10 years and was disqualified from working with children indefinitely.
The Bishop of Bath and Wells yesterday said he was “dismayed and extremely sorry” that Lee had failed to meet the high standards of personal integrity expected.
In a statement The Right Reverend Peter Price said: “The Reverend Richard Lee, priest at Hutton and Locking, has today been sentenced after pleading guilty to a number of serious offences.
“He has brought lasting damage and pain to those people directly affected by his actions, and my thoughts and prayers are with them. The diocese has worked in close co-operation with the police throughout this case.
“In accordance with the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, I suspended Mr Lee from active ministry as soon as he was arrested in July 2012. Now that Mr Lee has been sentenced, the Church’s own disciplinary proceedings will be started against him. Sanctions can and are likely to include depriving Mr Lee of the right to ever act as a priest again.”