Rev Peter McConnell, pictured at Newcastle Crown Court on Monday, could face prison for groping a passenger on a BA flight
A vicar could face prison after he was found guilty of groping a sleeping passenger during a British Airways flight.
Rev Peter McConnell sexually assaulted an American PhD student on a transatlantic flight in 2017 – after making ‘sleazy comments’ about sex acts, a court heard.
During the trip from Philadelphia to London Heathrow, the 64-year-old clergyman drank up to 10 small bottles of wine and asked the victim if he had been to ‘t***y’ bars.
He then spoke about God and asked his victim, 23, for forgiveness after the sex assault.
Today a jury found him guilty of sexual assault after four hours of deliberation at Newcastle Crown Court.
The vicar, who had been in America to visit his sister, had denied the charge and claimed he talked about ‘mindfulness’, not a sex act starting with the same letter.
After the verdict, prosecutor Andrew Espley said the former Northumbria Police chaplain had left his post with the force in 2014.
The clergyman must now sign the sex offenders register and will be sentenced next month.
He was granted conditional bail by judge Paul Sloan QC.
Mr Espley had told jurors the vicar had been ‘drinking heavily’ during the flight and had moved to sit beside the student because a child had been kicking the back of his own seat.
The court heard McConnell, who was travelling with his godson, tried to engage the stranger in conversation, which the student found ‘odd’.
Mr Espley went on: ‘Mr McConnell said his godson had got really drunk in South Carolina and had been to a t***y bar.
McConnell, pictured outside court with his wife Joy on Monday, was found guilty today
‘He asked the complainant if he had ever been to a t***y bar. He said he hadn’t and felt uncomfortable about the conversation.
‘It was an odd thing, you may think for anyone to say to a stranger on a flight but not as odd as what he was going to go on to say, at one point talking about a sex act and saying it was a way to relive stress.’
The court heard the student had ‘faked a laugh’, which prosecutors say was through embarrassment, and McConnell continued chatting to him.
When the student began to tire, McConnell covered him with a blanket, which the victim initially thought was kind.
The vicar then sexually assaulted him after he fell asleep.
Mr Espley said: ‘As he was drifting off to sleep, he felt Mr McConnell’s hand under the blanket, on his right knee, thigh area, massaging his thigh, knee. That lasted 10 to 15 seconds.
‘He said he must have fallen asleep. He recalls jolting awake and when he did he looked down and could see McConnell’s hand had stopped groping his knee, thigh area and was rubbing his groin area, rubbing side to side, over the top of his pants.’
The clergyman sexually assaulted an American PhD student on a flight from Philadelphia to London Heathrow (file photo) in 2017
The court heard the student ‘started crying’ when he confided in his mother what had happened and alerted the authorities.
Speaking from the witness box, the student said he was ‘shocked, disgusted and disturbed’ after he was touched under the blanket.
He added: ‘He kept trying to talk to me, wanting to apologise. ‘He wanted to shake my hand, started blaming the alcohol, saying he was drunk, trying to get me to forgive him. I said no.
‘He kept trying to shake my hand, he twice tried to hug me, I pulled away. He tried to kiss the hair above my ear, which was very disturbing.’
The student said McConnell then started to deny that he had touched him.
He said he asked for McConnell’s contact details when the flight ended, and realised McConnell’s profession when he spotted the word vicarage in the email address he gave him.
He then reported what had happened to the airline and the Church of England and the police became involved as a result.