Hillsborough Inquest - A Chaplain’s Perspective

Mission in the Economy Coordinator, Rev'd Jean Flood has written this excellent reflection on the chaplains’ role in supporting the families.

In June 2013 MitE appointed a new Chaplain to Birchwood Business Park. With very little funding available Jennifer Beaumont agreed to work for 4 hours per week. She took on the huge task of serving the businesses and staff of a vast business park comprising many technology and nuclear businesses. We had no idea of the scope of the demands to come.  The MitE Co-ordinator attended a briefing on the proposal to hold the new Hillsborough Inquests on the site after the recent revelations of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.  At that briefing in March 2014 we offered to supply Chaplains for the duration of the court proceedings. Tony Allman, Ministry of Justice (MOJ) informed us that while they had no objections to having a Chaplain on site they would be unwilling to advertise the service because of their concern ‘not to spook the families’. Comprehensive counselling services would be provided on site and other facilities, quiet rooms etc. for use of victims’ family members and witnesses. This would be the largest coronial inquest, too big for existing courts and an enormous undertaking. It would involve 92 lawyers, 16 or 17 Queens Counsel and many influential barristers. Lord Justice Goldring, the Coroner, was the 4th most senior judge in England and Wales. The process would be independent of government. The court would hold 240 people and there was also an annex where the proceedings would be relayed.  A 24/7 press presence was expected but a code of conduct to minimize security issues and minimal interruption was to be imposed. All opinion and comment on the proceedings on social media were forbidden and would put the tweeter/facebooker in contempt of court. In fact the Coroner ordered inappropriate tweets etc. be removed almost instantly. A Press Officer had been appointed and would be the point of contact.

11 jurors would be ‘kept separate’. There would be 600 people at most in the court building at one time. ‘It is a legal process and not a free for all’.  A Police Inspector had been specially seconded. The Police Management process had graded the Inquest a ‘low threat assessment’.  Police presence would be low key because of associated emotional issues. Unpopular police witnesses – some of whom would be very elderly - would also need support. There would, however, be a high Security Guard presence.

Office suites on other sites in Birchwood Park were occupied by legal companies and hotels were busy. Legal officers and witnesses were in separate hotels. Great care was taken to ensure that the media, the families, the legal teams and witnesses would park in different places on the site, parking permits being colour-coded. Also, the site would be wholly accessible and well sign-posted as many witnesses would be elderly and could also be disabled.

Faced with the Godly obligation to serve where we were, with what we had and however we could, the MitE Team decided to simply sit alongside people attending the court and maintain our usual discrete care with sensitivity. Our actions were ‘gently specific’ as our MitE Birchwood Business Chaplain put it. In her previous working life she had been a journalist and though accustomed to attending inquests had always found them moving. She advised: ‘There is obviously a lot of emotion at the inquests, and it is impossible not to be moved by what is said. But I think it would be inappropriate for us as Chaplains to comment on that and I don't think it is our place to share that information beyond the court. People giving statements might expect that behaviour from the press, but I feel they might be hurt if we shared it’.

Jenni, along with Revd Pat Gray, Revd Mavis McDonnell (MitE Chaplain to Warrington Golden Square and Market) and Revd Stephen Kingsnorth (Warrington Borough Ministry), endeavoured to attend the inquest on a weekly basis. We had occasional help from others but were able to maintain regular contact with the families for the 4 days per week that the court usually sat.

Throughout the process Chaplains expressed concern for the jury but particularly when the evidence consisted of detailed technical diagrams or dull legalities which they themselves found difficult to follow – ‘mind-numbing information overload’. They were all moved by the support the families gave each other and by the sensitivity and professionalism of the Coroner and of Christina Lambert QC acting as Lead Counsel who ‘had good oversight of everybody’s needs’. Her colleagues reported that: "She runs the show in Hillsborough, handling the responsibility with incredible fairness, calmness and good humour… She has been acting as ringmaster to a large and diverse legal team very well."

The Coroner ensured that there was an extended silence after each of the families’ impact statements or ‘pen portraits’ of their loved ones when even hardened professional journalists could not hold back tears.

Jenni says:  ‘I wouldn't want to suggest that everyone goes into the court annex and listens to the inquests, because inquests are, by their nature, tough. I have sat through many in my time, and I've not been left untouched by any of them. Listening to these statements is like a prayer’. This inquest deals with 96 individuals and it is very emotional.  But, having said that, I personally have always enjoyed inquests and I find them (and I'd forgotten quite how much) very fulfilling. I think I found it very helpful being there, but I wouldn't want to prescribe that for everyone’.

As winter approached the families retreated to their designated room to eat lunch rather than outside near the sandwich van. After having the opportunity to talk with them outside when the weather was good, Pat Gray bemoaned the loss of contact that ensued as she felt she couldn’t intrude into their space.

At first security staff asked where the clergy had come from but familiarity grew and the dog-collar provided a sign recognisable to all levels of people in the court.

Video evidence was particularly painful for the families but especially so for one family who had sought unceasingly for their son’s appearance on recordings of the event and tragically had never been able to find him.

When I attended the inquests I found the Police Legal Counsel aggressive. There was a stark contrast between the defending barristers with their carefully cultivated professionalism, sharp both in attitude and appearance, and the humble witnesses who had longed for years to speak truth into the situation. Fortunately the Coroner never switched off. Very astute, he both spoke his mind and did not allow procrastination by others – “is there a question coming?” The Chaplains reported that one elderly witness, obviously in the early stages of dementia and unable to offer much input at all, was thanked profusely for fulfilling his civic duty by attending the court.

Of course all families did not attend all of the time. Some days there were only half a dozen or so in the court. Some days the evidence was just too hard for them to face. Alternatively when there were key witnesses such as David Duckinfield, the court and annex was full. All the Chaplains felt ‘his words did not fit his body language’.  He was obviously a troubled man.

Legal staff comforted their clients too, often sitting with them in the court as did those representing the injured. There were often other observers – a doctor researching for a book, a portrait artist who would sell her drawings to the press, students, and gatherers of evidence working in the background.
Pat was humbled when, on one of the busier days when access was restricted, she was allowed in because security staff ‘put her down as family’.

There were moments when humour broke in. One witness, with a pronounced scouse accent described how his companion was “gaspin fer rer”.  Efficient as always the Coroner clarified: “Oh do you mean gasping for breath?”!

Jenni remembered, too late one morning, that she had both a knife and a peeler for her lunchtime apple in her bag - which would be searched by security. She hurriedly stashed them in a nearby bush to be retrieved later! This has remained a close kept secret until now.

Intrusive questioning required psychiatric intervention for one suffering witness who was deeply affected. The ‘ground hog’ effect of repeatedly reliving the awful event meant some witnesses needed support from their social workers. Families became distressed and even walked out when drunkenness was mentioned.

For Jenni the evidence was a revealing reflection of human nature. Lots of scapegoating and cutting corners and mere ‘rubber-stamping” in the aftermath, but also relief for the families that people had at least tried to help – off duty doctors who didn’t know who had survived; the witness who responded to a child’s cry: “Don’t leave my dad!”; the fan who had comforted a dying man - and consequently his grieving family.
As the inquest drew to a close Jenni reflected.  ‘It’s worth remembering that this is a public inquiry, and the jury cannot suggest any criminal or civil liability.  The answers to 14 questions is a balance of probabilities, but when answering question 6 (question six asked if the jury believed the 96 individuals were unlawfully killed) the jury must be sure. The final set of documents is a record of the inquest, one for each of those who died. A document has to be produced for every inquest that is held, as this inquiry covers 96 inquests, the jury fill in one for each inquest. This allows for the death to be registered in the registers of births, marriages and deaths.  Each questionnaire deals with Who died, When they died, Where they died, and How they died’.

Ann Hulbert a Hospital Chaplain and friend of MitE visited St George’s Hall after the vigil held there.
She explains how she ‘was touched by the reverent attitude of everybody. I felt in essence I was doing the Lord’s work just being there. The sight of those 96 lanterns and the sheer enormity of the deaths will stay with me’.

A survivor of the Hillsborough tragedy was Adrian Tempany. You can read his moving story in the Guardian newspaper. 
‘I am caught somewhere between this life and the next’ Adrian reflects – both at the time of his near death experience and for many of the ensuing years.

Chaplains, by the very nature of their role, inhabit a space between, a liminal God-filled space on the edge of every situation they encounter. When we make God sense of the people and situations we encounter, when we bring comfort to the perplexed but also challenge the comfortable, as Michael Williams puts it, when we draw attention to injustice, when we act as intermediaries, we are giving God voice. For Weienga, giving God voice, is ‘the point of irruption of the divine’; it’s where God breaks in.  

The Chaplain’s incarnational ministry of presence witnesses to the fact that God is always in there somewhere - and God will out.

MitE Chaplains shared precious time with a group of people united by football and by grief.  These people were the human collateral of gross discrimination and prejudice. Abandoned to suffering by pride, spiritual blindness and classism. In Numbers 13:33 we are told how people about to start a difficult journey into a unknown territory were filled with fear of their ferocious opponents. ‘We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them’. But Moses told them, ‘do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them’. Numbers 14: 9. The families were little people entrenched in injustice, easily squelched like grasshoppers underfoot, but overcame one seemingly impossible hurdle after another. And all the time God was in the midst of them. We Chaplains have been highly privileged to be witnesses to that.  We were witnesses to God in the midst of them and witnesses to what God, the ultimate Truth, can do.  Progress is when we all learn the lessons of Truth, yet again.

Jean Flood
MitE Co-ordinator

[1] Williams, M. The Nature of Chaplaincy, Unpublished conference paper Summer 2001
[1] Bastiaan Wielenga Liberation Theology in Asia in Christopher Rowland (Ed) Liberation Theology (Cambridge University Press : Cambridge, 1999) p52