Former head of British Council Italy sues over claims he groped woman at Rome party

Paul Sellers sues over allegations of sexual harassment in Rome.

The former head of the British Council in Italy has been accused of drunkenly groping a staff member of the British embassy in Rome, reports The Times.

Paul Sellers stepped down from his role as the director of the British Council in Italy after an investigation was launched into claims that he kissed the woman and grabbed her breasts, The Times reports.

The incident is alleged to have occurred at a party hosted at home by Sellers and his art historian wife Isadora, who had worked at the British embassy, on 16 December 2018.

The next day the woman confided in the British ambassador Jill Morris who ordered an internal investigation, at the end of which Sellers left his post.

High court action

No complaint has ever been filed in Italy and the case would not have become public if Sellers himself had not taken high court action against UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab and the British Council.

The libel action centres on an email written by Ken O’Flaherty, deputy head of mission at the Rome embassy until October 2019, containing details of the woman's complaint.

Party

In the email the diplomat reports the account given by the woman, identified only as ZZ, who said she was groped by Sellers as she prepared to leave the party, at around 16.30.

O'Flaherty wrote: "When saying goodbye to Paul, he leaned in and kissed [ZZ] on the edge of her lips. He placed his hands on her chest and rubbed them down over her breasts in a way that was quite deliberate. [ZZ] was very shocked by this. She felt violated and immediately wanted to get out of the house. She duly left."

The woman, who claimed she was unable to sleep that night, made a complaint to the ambassador the next day, despite fears that she might become the subject of gossip and face potential "professional consequences," reports The Times.

Alcohol

'[ZZ] judges that Paul was "quite drunk". He had previously [been] salsa dancing with a female intern and said proudly "I don't drink coffee" when it was offered," added O'Flaherty.

"Paul regularly drinks at social professional events. I have not seen him incapacitated, but does show the effect of alcohol and consumed more than many colleagues."

Erratic behaviour

The email continued: "Paul Sellers has shown erratic and uncharacteristically emotional behaviour in his interactions with embassy staff in recent months. This has made HMA [Ms Morris] wonder whether there might be other issues in play."

Lawyers for Sellers argued that the email suggested there were "strong" grounds to suspect him of sexual assault.

Argument dismissed

However Mr Justice Saini dismissed that argument, stating that the officials who received it "would have been fully aware that Mr O'Flaherty was simply passing on a summary of a complaint made by a third person, about a matter which he had no direct knowledge of."

The judge ruled that the "ordinary meaning" of the email is that there "are reasonable grounds to suspect that when [ZZ] was saying goodbye to the claimant … the claimant, under the influence of alcohol, inappropriately kissed [ZZ] on the edge of her lips and deliberately rubbed his hands over her breasts in a sexual manner."

The judge found that two further emails sent by O'Flaherty and Rebecca Walton, the council's Europe director, announcing Sellers was leaving his post, were not defamatory. The claim for damages over O'Flaherty's first email is ongoing, reports The Daily Mail.

Career with British Council 

Sellers spent 22 years working at the British Council, which is funded by the UK foreign ministry and is tasked with promoting British culture around the world.

Before arriving in Rome in 2014, Sellers held senior positions in India and the United Arab Emirates.

His Facebook profile states that he lives in Chennai, India, and there has been little news of him since the second half of 2019, according to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The British embassy and the British Council in Rome have declined to comment on the case.

Photo The Times