Quite how Jeremy Forrest and Megan Stammers thought they would get away with fleeing to France is difficult to comprehend.
The pursuit of the couple received significant media coverage both in the United Kingdom and on the Continent with the euphoria created playing a major role in the final identification of them in Bordeaux on Friday. This media coverage also prompted high levels of public interaction with the moral and legal specifics of the case, much of which has been focused around the apparent guilt of Jeremy Forrest.
But why is Forrest guilty in the public sphere? Do we condemn him for abusing his responsibilities as a teacher or does his guilt stem from the fact that regardless of his profession, he is 30 and Stammers 15?
…He is a guilty man…
In essence, is it the law that determines our analysis of Forrest or is it an impulse reaction to an unusual relationship?
Legally, Forrest doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He is a guilty man. Not only is Megan Stammers below the age of consent in the United Kingdom, but in 2003 the Sexual Offences Act made it illegal for a person over 18 in a position of trust to have a sexual relationship with a child under 18, regardless of whether the relationship is consensual and even if the person does not teach the child.
So even if Stammers was 16, Forrest would still be a guilty man. But how would our perceptions change if Forrest had not been a teacher or in a position of trust, and yet was in a relationship with a 16 year old Stammers? Indeed, if this hypothetic couple made an impromptu flight across the Channel, would there be media euphoria on the scale we have experienced over the last week.
My guess is probably not. There is no story in such a scenario. And so it would appear that emotions are provoked when the law is challenged.
…Forrest was not breaking any laws…
In effect, the legal framework plays a role in shaping our levels of moral tolerance. This has been clearly demonstrated over the last week with the actions of the French authorities with regards to Stammers and Forrest. Despite being only too happy to enable the international warrant for Forrest’s arrest, the French police did not categorise the exploits as a criminal case- for with the age of consent in France being 15, Forrest was not breaking any laws.
Therefore, without the stain of criminality tied to his name, the force of public opinion in France approaches an assessment of Forrest from a quite different position than we do here in the United Kingdom.
…I believe he is a guilty man…
There is certainly something to be gained from a comparison between the legal interpretations of two similar countries (in the greater scheme of things) in a case as contentious as this. Why would it have been ‘ok’ for Forrest and Stammers to conduct their relationship in France, when it has led ultimately to the destruction of Forrest’s life? At no point do I seek to hide from the fact that horrifying cases of abuse are all to often a reality and the law has to commit to a judgement at some point in order to create a framework and a guidance that we can all live by.
Equally at no point to I seek to defend the actions of Forrest, he broke the law and abused his responsibilities as a teacher not to mention has wreaked havoc in the lives of many people-not least his wives. I believe he is a guilty man. But there is also something quite baffling about the way in which our moral assessment of his actions in the United Kingdom is so very different to that in France. He would be a free man there and happily continue a relationship with a 15-year age difference-not a terribly unusual occurrence. Indeed, at what point does a 15-year age gap not matter any more? Justice will be served and rightly so. But how differently Forrest’s life would be now were he a Frenchman.