It would seem that our modern moral panic about peadophile priests is not that ‘modern’ at all. This report from the Morning Chronicle of 1831 does not use the term nor indeed does it spell out the offence, but it is nevertheless quite clear what was being alleged.
On 13 May 1831 the Rev. W_____ P______ (his name was not given in the press) was charged before the magistrate at Union Hall with ‘taking unbecoming liberties’ with a young lad named Magee. The priest had been seen on Blackfriars Bridge at night by a hat-tip maker called Benjamin Ryder. Ryder deposed that he saw the anonymous clergyman stooping to talk to the boy, who was ragged and barefoot, and that he was leading him across the bridge and into the dark streets south of the river.
Ryder was concerned and followed them, when he saw them stop he called for a policeman. The PC (one of Peel’s new created force) approached and the clergyman ran off. When the policeman caught up with him the priest’s clothes were in a ‘loose and suspicious state’. Back at the station his name was discovered by examining a ‘valuable silver snuff box’ which was engraved with Latin inscription – a present from a ‘Society in Devon’.
The mysterious priest denied any wrongdoing and claimed his was trying to help the boy, who had approached him asking for ‘charity’. He went on to say that he had been quizzing the boy about his parents and his employment, as any good reforming clergyman might have done. However, the boy ‘gave a somewhat different version of their conversation’ and the magistrate committed him to prison on remand as he couldn’t meet the bail, set at £200, a huge amount for 1831.
[from The Morning Chronicle , Saturday, May 14, 1831]