Professor Donald Macleod, a leading churchman in the Free Church of Scotland was yesterday cleared of one of six charges of indecent assault.
Professor Macleod, who teaches systematic theology at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, denies six charges of indecent assault involving five women between 1985 and 1992.
His acquittal on one charge followed a legal dispute over the date when he is supposed to have kissed a receptionist at the Free Church College.
An objection was earlier raised by his defence counsel when the woman, now 24, said the alleged incident happened in April 1993. When the Edinburgh Sheriff Court resumed yesterday afternoon Andrew Hardie QC said he was making a motion that no more evidence should be taken from the witness. He said that the charge - the sixth - referred to the incident taking place between 1 March and 31 May 1992. He pointed out that this charge had already been amended by the Crown, who originally said that it took place in 1993.
Mr Hardie's motion was challenged by Deput Fiscal Margaret Graham, who asked to be allowed to clarify the correct date with the woman. But Sheriff John Horsburgh QC said he was sustaining the objection.
He referred to an earlier legal argument in the case when the defence entered a special plea of alibi after the date that the assault took place was finally pinned down to the end of July 1985.
Mr Hardie said that the Crown should have got a precise date from the witness, who alleged Professor Macleod kissed her in his home, when they prepared her for the trial.
Mr Horsburgh said that the same situation could arise again if there was some question mark hanging over the timing of the final offence. He said this would not be fair to the accused and he was acquitting him of the final charge. In sustaining the motion to strike one of the six charges, Mr Horsburgh said: "In my view it would be prejudicial to the defence for evidence to be further taken from this witness." He then formally acquitted Professor Macleod of the charge.
Earlier yesterday, a fourth woman accused Professor Macleod, 55, of indecent assault. The 25-year-old woman told the court that the alleged incident happened when she went to the professor's office to borrow a book for a university course she was doing on church history.
His lawyers have already suggested during the case that the charges are the result of a conspiracy among some members of the church. The court was told the woman went to Professor Macleod's study in the church college in November 1991 after he offered to lend her a book for one of her courses. She was sure he locked his office door before he sat on the arm of the chair she was sitting on, to discuss the book he was giving to her.
She felt uncomfortable and got up to leave. "I tried to get away as quickly as I could," she said. "As I was leaving, near the door, he attempted to kiss me and I pulled away." She left immediately afterwards.
The woman denied she was part of a conspiracy to discredit the professor, but admitted being a friend of two other women who have made similar complaints against him.
Under cross-examination by Mr Hardie, she was asked why it had taken her a year before she reported the alleged incident. She said she had not complained because she was taking university finals the following June and did not want to interrupt her studies, and later her father had become seriously ill.
She denied Mr Hardie's allegation that she had not told her parents or other people in the church about what had happened at the time because the incident had not happened.
Later, she admitted contributing to a private fund which is said to have been set up by rival leaders of the Free Church to pay for travel expenses from Australia of another of Professor Macleod's alleged victims.
Under cross-examination the woman said she had given pounds 50 towards the Dorcas Fund - named after a woman in the New Testament who was raised from the dead by one of the disciples - after seeing a circular asking for contributions to meet the pounds 1,500 costs.
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