Gay churchman cleared of groping woman in cathedral

Nicholas Whitaker arrives at Leeds Crown Court

Nicholas Whitaker arrives at Leeds Crown Court

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A VERGER has been cleared of groping a woman in Wakefield Cathedral after he said he only gave her a hug.

The jury at Leeds Crown Court took less than 30 minutes yesterday to find Nicholas Whitaker, 34, not guilty of sexual assault on July 2 last year.

When he was asked by the court clerk if it was a verdict on which all 12 jurors agreed, the foreman replied: “It certainly is.”

After thanking his legal team outside the court Whitaker, who is openly gay, declined to comment to the media.

The woman had claimed he fondled her breasts as she stood talking to the head verger before an ordination service in the cathedral.

In evidence yesterday, Whitaker of Richmond Road, St John’s, Wakefield, said he was stunned when he heard of the complaint and never meant to cause her any offence.

He had got to know her over recent weeks. “I thought we were on the way to becoming friends,” he said. When he saw her talking to the head verger “I thought it would a fun idea to go up behind her, give her a brief hug from behind and say hello.”

“It certainly was not my intention to touch her breasts,” he told his counsel, Charlotte Worsley.

He was a boy chorister at the cathedral from the age of eight and after his voice broke continued as an altar server until he went to Edinburgh University where he studied music.

He then gained a teaching qualification in Worcester before teaching music as a house master at a school in Berkshire.

After a brief period of unemployment having returned to live with his parents he became a part-time verger at the cathedral last May doing 20 hours a week.

He said he had continued going back to the cathedral to sing as an adult and the authorities there were aware he was gay, having “come out” at university.

“I don’t wave a banner but I don’t make a secret of it,” he told the jury.

On the day of the incident he had received a call from the director of music to sing in the choir for the ordination of the deacons that day because he was “a man down”.

Seeing the woman talking to the head verger Julie Lovell, he said: “I walked up behind her put my arms around her upper arms giving her a very, very brief hug, literally time to say ‘morning chuck’ and that was it.”

He demonstrated to the jury and said he had his hands closed. “I would have no reason to touch her breasts, no wish to touch her breasts.”

He said hugging someone with hands open in that situation was an intimate gesture. “I would never dream of doing that.”

Had he touched her chest in any way it was quite unintentional. When he heard of her complaint a couple of weeks later and was suspended he could not believe it.

He told the jury he is now a chorus master for an amateur operatic society and director of music for a church near Dewsbury.

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