Living: When office pranks ruin your life

Jonathan Morris thought he was indulging in some harmless fun with colleagues - until he found himself accused of indecent assault. Brigid McConville reports
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It's a sign of our times that when four women point the finger at a male colleague and cry "sex pest" we tend to believe them. Our scorn for him redoubles when we read that he was their boss - and that he paraded his gorgeous girlfriend before the court to prove that he gets all his sexual needs satisfied at home.

All this has been reported about 24- year-old Jonathan Morris who worked at the River Island shop in Cardiff until he faced eight charges of indecent assault on female staff. The charges, of which he was acquitted last week at Cardiff Crown Court, ranged from pinching bottoms and breasts to more serious acts. "It's all like something of out of a film," says his girlfriend, Helen Masterman, who also works in a shop. Indeed.

The film would be a story of our times: how despite a decade of highly publicised sexual harassment cases, millions of working men and women still get up to quite crude sexual shenanigans - until suddenly, someone complains, legal formalities begin and their world is turned inside out. For the tides of political correctness were only just beginning to lap against River Island in Cardiff and what Jonathan Morris thought of as innocent horseplay was to lead him to months of crucifying anxiety, enforced unemployment and a painful family rift.

Helen and Jonathan are a friendly, likeable pair in immaculate clothes who both start talking at the same time - until Helen establishes that she is in charge of this conversation. "People don't understand why I stuck by him," she says, "But I know these girls."

Jonathan is straightforward, not the type who is on the look-out for subtleties or hidden motives in others' behaviour. It sounds as if he was already out of his depth with the female staff. He thought they looked on him as a "big brother", confiding their intimate worries about sex and pregnancy to him. He never asked why, just went along with whatever was going on:

"It was like mucky scraps all the time: they'd pinch my bum; I'd put a stamp on their foreheads. There was a lot of playful banter and jokes. It wasn't just me, it was the norm."

And some of the female staff, if Jonathan is to be believed, were hardly shrinking violets. One confided in him her fears of being pregnant - that she didn't know who the father was. Another made comments to which he only knew how to reply in kind: "She said, 'Is it true about black men? So I'd reply (puffing himself up): 'Yes, I'm built like a barn and hung like a horse!' "

Jonathan admitted in court that he pinched a girl's bum, but claimed this was only after she pinched his. He also admits to squeezing a girl's breasts and saying 'honk honk', but says his actions were always in playful retaliation to what one of the women had done to him.

"It sounds terrible, I know," says Jonathan, "but when you're there and it's in front of everyone and it's on an equal basis...." Nor was he anyone's boss: "I was in charge of formal wear but I had no authority or power."

Perhaps the most serious allegation heard in court was that he forced a woman into the stock room, pulled down her tights and pants and performed cunnilingus. Jonathan vehemently denied this, claiming it was she who asked for sex, which he laughed off.

Jonathan got wind of the troubles ahead on the evening of the day of the stockroom incident. At 7pm he got a call from the company telling him he had been suspended. At first he thought he had been caught out for lying. He had gone home from work that afternoon, pretending his flat had been burgled. In fact, he went to bed because he had lumbago.

"When the call came we were both panicking in case he lost his job," says Helen. She took a day off to go with him to a meeting with management - but the meeting was postponed for a week. "I went into the shop, to find out what was going on, but they said only Jonathan and the other person knows what happened."

It was two weeks before Jonathan was told, over the phone, that he was accused of sexual harassment. "When I first heard we had a big row," Helen says. "I questioned him, I had my doubts. you would, wouldn't you?"

So what made her believe his denials? The oral sex details convinced her, for one thing. "I just know that of all things he wouldn't do that," says Helen, turning a convincing shade of pink, "because he's so fussy about hygiene."

Once Jonathan knew what the charges were he took advice from Helen's father, a policeman, and went to the police to make a statement. At one point, claims Helen, "they put him in a cell which had racist comments smeared on the walls." Smeared? She looks to Jonathan, embarrassed. "In excrement," he obliges.

After seven months the case finally came to the Crown Court . Helen, shivering with nerves and unable to eat went along every day with her mother and Jonathan's mother for moral support. Jonathan had already lost two stone and been referred for counselling by his GP. The prospect of two years in prison as a sex offender had brought him to the brink of suicide.

"When I saw the jury - nine ladies and three guys - I went, gulp," says Jonathan. But Helen soon noticed the jury nodding at what he said. Helen was asked to give evidence about an incident in which she claims she was pushed by female staff at the shop, partly - she was told - to impress the jury with her comparative attractiveness. "But it was total rubbish that I was "paraded" as the papers said. I was only in the witness box for 10 minutes all week. Jonathan got himself out of it; it was nothing to do with me."

They were high with relief on the day last week when Jonathan was acquitted - which is partly why, says Helen, she accepted pounds 2,500 from the Sun to pose lying down in only a towel. "Exhibit of Allright!" was the headline: "THE BODY THAT SAVED GROPE CHARGE BOSS".

I regret that my family are a bit off with me as a result," she smiles ruefully. "But we needed the money; we've now got a lot of debts. If I'd agreed to pose naked I could have got twice as much."

The euphoria of being found not guilty has faded fast and both Helen and Jonathan are feeling angry and depressed. "Now I'm thinking about all those bad times," says Helen. "I can't get it out of my head what they did.

"I felt I was caught in a trap," says Jonathan. "We've lost almost everything." What seems to bother him even more than losing his job and his income is the loss of his long-term dream - to become a policeman like his brother.

"I'm a rock climber and a qualified lifeguard," says Jonathan, "and I've done voluntary work with ethnic minority children with the Cardiff police." Yet he feels he now has no hope of being accepted into their ranks.

In the meantime he has to live with the fact that Cardiff is a small city and the case has made an impact locally. "People have come up to me and said: 'Where I work these things happen all the time but we've thought twice about it since your case.' One comment and that's it. I've told everyone - be so careful in what you do and say."

His main goal, says Jonathan, is "to patch things up with Helen's dad". "My father doesn't want anything to do with Jonathan," says Helen. Jonathan says he can understand her father's feelings. They both miss Helen's little sister, aged four, who they haven't seen since November. Jonathan is no longer welcome in the house, but says Helen "I don't accept that I should have to go up without him".

The question remains why, after years of public debate about sexual politics in the workplace, did Jonathan not seem to know any better? Helen thinks that he has been naive but Jonathan still seems rather baffled by it all. Yes, he was aware of other cases where men got into trouble for inappropriate sexual behaviour. He isn't against feminism: "political correctness" doesn't mean much to him. He just doesn't connect these ideas to what was going on in the Cardiff shop.

Besides, he sees himself as having great respect for women and admits to being the old fashioned door-opening type. "His mum was a single parent" says Helen. "And she brought him up - with five sisters and a brother - to respect women totally". And if the way he defers to Helen is any guide, it seems - ironically - plausible that he went along with the shop "horseplay" in order to oblige, rather than to dominate.

Yet the ordeal of the past seven months has changed his personality, says Helen. "He won't be left alone in a room with any of my girlfriends now. He's paranoid. He used to be affectionate with friends, but they all say he's backed off now."

Helen has her own regrets - that she didn't report the incident in which she claims she was pushed around at the shop before all this happened. "But we didn't think anything of it at the time," remonstrates"Jonathan.

It hurts especially that in their trial by tabloid Jonathan emerges as a smirking lecher who justly got away with something that ought to be considered a joke. But there is nothing funny about this case for women who try to get justice for genuine indecent assaults, and nothing funny for Jonathan or Helen either. "Trust me," says Helen, "we haven't laughed at all."

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