A 12-YEAR ordeal ended yesterday for Professor Donald Macleod of the Free Church of Scotland when he was completely cleared of allegations that he had sexually assaulted four women.

Sheriff John Horsburgh QC said it was a case in which it was appropriate to return a verdict of not guilty rather than not proven.

In a damning judgment, the sheriff concluded the women had all lied in the witness box to further the ends of Professor Macleod's enemies in the Free Church of Scotland.

The sheriff said: ``My conclusion is that the witnesses on these charges have squared their consciences on the basis that a modest degree of dishonesty on their part would be justified on the perceived resultant advantage of blackening the name of Professor Macleod and supporting his opponents.''

The Rev John J Murray, minister at St Columba's Free Church in Edinburgh, was described during eight days of evidence at Edinburgh Sheriff Court as one of the main conspirators against the professor.

Sheriff Horsburgh said he agreed with the evidence of one witness that Mr Murray was a ``dangerous man''.

However, less than an hour after leaving the court, Professor Macleod was taking a more charitable view: he said he felt no ill-will towards his accusers.

In a classroom only a few yards from the office where he was alleged to have indecently assaulted two of four women who gave evidence against him, he added: ``About the women, I just feel compassion towards them.''

The professor described the men who were alleged to have been behind the campaign against him as ``as part of my past'', adding: ``They have had enough of my life.''

His future, he said, was still undecided, but he did not rule out quitting the Free Church to join the Church of Scotland, or a career away from religion, as a writer and journalist.

Mr Horsburgh took an hour and a half to deliver his decision immediately after the closing defence speech.

Professor Macleod, 55, of Craiglea Drive, Edinburgh, professor of systematic theology at the Free Church College, was charged with sexually assaulting the four women in five separate incidents said to have taken place between 1985 and 1991.

The allegations surfaced after the church cleared him of claims that he had committed adultery in Australia in the mid 1980s.

Mr Horsburgh pointed out that it was a summary case and should be dealt with as quickly as possible.

``In most cases doing that presents very little in the way of a problem but this has really been no ordinary case.''

The sheriff stressed that the case hinged on which witnesses were believable, including Professor Macleod.

On the one hand the prosecution was saying: ``Why should all these women be telling lies? It says there is no evidence that they have been part of any conspiracy.''

The defence case was that the witnesses were tainted, that the allegations were a fabrication and part of a plot to discredit their client.

``Plainly, one side or the other is not telling the truth,'' said Sheriff Horsburgh.

``It is easy to see why Professor Macleod should not be telling the truth. He is accused of distasteful crimes and a conviction on all or any of them would have very serious consequences so far as he is concerned.

``Why four women should concoct lies which implicate him on these charges isn't so easy to comprehend, at least at first blush.''

The defence put forward by Professor Macleod raised two main issues - firstly that people inside and outside the Free Church had conduced a hostile campaign against him for a variety of reasons.

``The defence also proposes

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the notion that the complainers have somehow allowed themselves to become associated with these people to the extent of their giving perjured evidence.

``Behind these propositions lies the idea that the anti-Macleod campaign are prepared to break the Ninth Commandment and make false allegations against him.

``It may seem surprising that people who obviously genuinely regard themselves as Christians would act in this way, but I think when you look at history it is possible to see that sort of thing may happen.''

Sheriff Horsburgh said it was plain from both prosecution and defence witnesses that opponents of Professor Macleod from both inside and outwith the Free Church had been active in trying to secure his downfall.

Whether it was based on jealousy, differing theological standpoints, resentment about his abilities or standing or on allegations about moral improprieties, what was important was the manner in which the opposition had made itself plain.

The sheriff then proceeded to detail evidence which had been led during the trial of the activities of the anti-Macleod faction and the attempts to discredit him.

He referred to evidence about the conduct of some members of the Free Church training of the ministry committee which had twice rejected allegations that Professor Macleod had committed adultery in Australia in the mid 1980s.

A minority had refused to accept this and continued to wage a campaign against the professor, culminating in complaints from three of the women who featured in the trial emerging at ``the 11th hour''.

The Rev John Murray was said to be one of the leaders of the anti-Macleod campaign, and Sheriff Horsburgh said: ``I think that the late Professor Douglas McMillan was justified in regarding the Rev John Murray as a dangerous man.''

The sheriff said that Dr Eric Mackay, a special adviser to the training of the ministry committee, was one of the most impressive witnesses in the case.

``I thought that what he said about the actions of some of the members of the committee was really very damning. I am not suprised that Dr Mackay felt that the actings of the committee had taken on the aspect of a vendetta against Professor Macleod.''

The sheriff referred to the Dorcas Fund which was set up by Mr John Heenan, a friend of Mr Murray and which paid the expenses of one of four women to come from Tasmania to give evidence.

In Sheriff Horsburgh's view, the Dorcas Fund amounted to an ``interference with the course of justice''.

He said: ``I have come to the conclusion that there was a campaign against him, and it involved a number of people both inside and outwith the Free Church. They may have had different reasons for their hostility towards him but the common object was his downfall.''

That still left the big question of whether the evidence of the four women had been promoted by or tailored to the ends of the campaign.

``They came out at the 11th hour and I thought that, looking at the various complainers as a whole there was sufficient nexus between each one of them and those who were supporting the campaign against Professor Macleod for their evidence to be tainted by that.

``This implies really that they were prepared to make false complaints against him and did make false complaints against him.

``Given their relationship to or support of people who were opposed to him I have come to the conclusion that they were prepared to tell lies about him.''

A Crown Office spokesman said last night it would be for the fiscal to decide whether there were sufficient grounds to justify an investigation into any allegation of perjury.