SCOTS-BORN teacher Jeremy Forrest, who groomed a girl of 15 before taking her to France when he was about to be exposed, has been found guilty of child abduction.
A jury took less than two hours to convict him after an eight-day trial. The 30-year-old, who remained stony-faced, turned to the girl and said “I love you” when the verdict was about to be announced. He will be sentenced on Friday.
As he was led to the cells, the girl sobbed and said: “I am sorry.”
The trial heard the girl had just turned 15 when Forrest started having sex with her, having groomed her after she developed a crush on him at Bishop Bell Church of England School in Eastbourne, East Sussex.
Fearing they were about to be discovered, Forrest booked them on a ferry from Dover to Calais on 20 September last year, and they spent seven days on the run in France.
The trial heard Forrest, originally from Aberdeenshire, would pick the girl up in her school uniform and have sex with her in his car, in hotels and at his marital home. The girl told a friend they had sex up to eight times a night.
The police and the school have come under criticism over their handling of the case.
Police were not alerted until seven months after the first concerns were raised, and they held a meeting, rather than question or arrest Forrest immediately.
Teachers were first made aware of concerns about the relationship after a school trip to Los Angeles in February 2012. They were seen by several pupils to be holding hands during the return flight. Forrest failed to heed words of advice from senior staff and continued his relationship with the girl.
Despite a further warning to Forrest after inappropriate messages on Twitter were brought to the school’s attention, he was still able to continue seeing the girl.
Police were finally alerted on 14 September and four days later a joint strategy meeting was held involving officers, the school and education services.
The girl’s home was visited by a police officer and social worker on 19 September. They seized her mobile phone looking for indecent images of Forrest.
The following day, Forrest headed for France, taking the girl with him.
Bishop Bell school has already been in the spotlight after former chairman of governors Canon Gordon Rideout was jailed for ten years last month for a catalogue of sex attacks on youngsters at a now-closed Barnardo’s home.
Child abuse campaigner Marilyn Hawes, a teacher for 25 years and founder of Enough Abuse UK, criticised the school authorities for not acting on the earlier warning signs and has called for headteacher Terry Boatwright to be sacked.
A spokesman for East Sussex County Council, which is in charge of the school, said: “Our priority right from the start of this case has always been the welfare of the young person
“That remains our primary concern and we are working closely with her and her family, providing a range of support.”
During the trial at Lewes Crown Court, Richard Barton, prosecuting, said Forrest’s actions had been an abuse of trust.
He said Forrest could be labelled a “paedophile” who had groomed the vulnerable teenager. He told the jury: “That is not an inappropriate label for him. It is about his desires to have that young sexual flesh, to satisfy his own carnal lusts.
“You may feel it had nothing to do with her; it was to do with him, with his desires.
“You may feel he is a man who is flattered by the attention of very young vulnerable girls.
“What is it that Jeremy Forrest finds attractive about young-looking, vulnerable women? There is a word for it. It’s called grooming – being caring, being kind, being close, gaining confidence, gaining the trust of that person and then you can do what you want to do with them.”
He said that it was not a case of Romeo and Juliet, as they were not “equal” partners in what happened. It was Forrest that organised the situation. He said: “A teenager isn’t going to get out of Eastbourne, let alone out of the country.”
Mr Barton added: “You may well feel he is self-centred, mainly concerned with his self, his needs and desires, and not others. You may also feel he is a coward.”
Ronald Jaffa, defending, said the girl had been “desperate and suicidal” and Forrest had gone with her to France to prevent her coming to harm.
In a statement read outside court, the girl’s mother thanked police and French authorities for ensuring her daughter’s safe return. “As a family, for the last nine months, it’s been like living out your worst nightmare,” she said. “Every aspect of our lives has been affected to some degree.”
Deputy chief Crown prosecutor Portia Ragnouth said: “Nothing detracts from the fact that this was an abduction. The law clearly states that it is an offence to remove a child from the care of their parents or lawful guardian without the adult’s consent.”
Before yesterday’s proceedings began, Forrest’s father, Jim, collapsed in court and was treated by a paramedic before being taken away by ambulance. Forrest could be seen worriedly consulting his family as he took his seat in the dock.