Church of England

Peace on earth and good will to all men – except the sacked bell-ringers of York Minster

“The bells! The bells!” cried Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre-Dame de Paris in Victor Hugo’s quasi-fictional novel. He might have been sounding a prophetic child-safeguarding warning to the Church of England, what with the secret trial of Bishop George Bell and the summary dismissal of all the bell-ringers of York Minster. The sound (or silence) of bells is bringing the Church of England into disrepute.

The national press is hammering the scorn home, as much as scorn can be hammered: ‘Bell ringer ding-dong could see York Minster fall silent this Christmas for first time since 1361‘, jeers the Telegraph; ‘It’s silent night at York Minster as rivals support sacked bellringers‘, quips the Times; ‘Bellringers snub an invite to perform in a Christmas service at the world-famous York Minister in “solidarity” with volunteer ringers who were sacked without explanation‘, informs the Mail, in its inimitable way of writing a headline so you never need to read the actual article.

It’s wrong, too. The explanation for the mass dismissal is very much in the public domain. The Dean, the Very Rev’d Vivienne Faull, explained back in October: “Some members of the York Minster Society of Change Ringers have consistently challenged the Chapter’s authority on this and other important matters. Repeated disregard of the Chapter’s attempts to fully implement the Church’s national policies for safeguarding, health and safety and security meant that decisive action was required.” So, some bell-ringers were insubordinate, yet all 30 were summarily sacked. Sledgehammer? Nut? Bull? China shop? It’s about as subtle as a Jehovah’s Witness exposition of Trinitarian theology: it certainly doesn’t jingle the bells of justice or chime with peals of Christian charity, does it?

The bell-ringers’ grievance is also very much in the public domain (can’t the Mail use Google?): ‘How York Minster bellringers’ sacking blew the lid off bitter dispute‘, informs the Guardian; ‘York Minster Bells: Man at centre of safeguarding concerns is named‘, the people of York were told by the York Press.

So, it’s no real secret.

David Potter MBE (for services to campanology [this isn’t immaterial]) is the man at the centre of the Minster’s safeguarding concerns. He was York Minster’s master bell-ringer, with 30 years of loyal voluntary service to his credit (hence the MBE [this still isn’t immaterial]). All we know, according to the Guardian, is that allegations were made against him for child abuse:

In January 2000, days after Potter had been awarded an MBE for bellringing services over three decades, he was suspended as ringing master at York Minster and from his job as a teacher after claims of indecent assault. The following month, the police said he would not be charged.

Last year, Potter was the subject of another police investigation. “In June 2015 North Yorkshire police applied for a sexual risk order following concerns raised during multi-agency safeguarding processes about a 66-year-old York man and his contact with children,” the force said in a statement.

It is important to remember that suspension is a routine, neutral act, and also to note that the police brought no charges and the courts declined to issue a sexual risk order: David Potter has not been charged, still less found guilty of any crime. However, the Dean and Chapter of York Minster have taken a ‘no-smoke-without-fire’ approach and determined that he presents a very real and ongoing threat to children (or vulnerable adults), so he had to be subject to safeguarding measures. It must be acknowledged, of course, that the Dean and Chapter may have spied an awful lot more smoke than is wafting around in the public domain. We can’t know. But to ban David Potter from bell-ringing for life (which is the effect of this judgment), and then to sack all 30 of his fellow bell-ringers for insubordination, appears graceless and ham-fisted, to say the least.

To read that the consequence of this is that York Minster’s bells will fall silent at Christmas for the first time since 1361 brings the whole Church of England into disrepute. What must the world think of this at Christmas? What does this do for the church’s mission and witness at Christmas? Peace on earth and good will to all men – except the sacked bell-ringers of York Minster? Instead of rejoicing in the God who became man, the City of York grieves (the media scoffs and the nation despairs) over the bell-ringers who have been locked out of their bell tower (did the Dean really have to change the locks?). A ‘Minority Report‘-type pre-crime (or pre-sin) exclusion order, issued by the ‘pre-cog’ Dean and Chapter, has achieved what wars, plagues, massacres and storms could not: no Christmas bells at York Minster for the first time since 1361. David Potter MBE (..still material..) is deemed to present an ongoing risk to children: he has free will, but his crime and sin are predetermined by foreknowledge, and so no bells, no bells.

But let us reason that we’re not in full possession of the facts (beyond, that is, the fact that David Potter has never been charged with child abuse or indecent assault or found guilty in a court of law). In response to the ongoing media interest, the Very Rev’d Vivienne Faull has issued a further statement:

york-minster-3

This update (rather unhelpfully) raises further questions.

It is difficult to make any credible assessment of the situation as the Dean and Chapter don’t make clear the processes they are using. The lack of clarity doesn’t help anyone (just as it didn’t and doesn’t with the postmortem in camera trial of Bishop George Bell). Justice must be seen to be done. Why can’t the Minster’s safeguarding team disclose the method/s they have used to assess the risk presented by David Potter MBE (..still material..)? There is no assurance given that any assessment includes a ‘no risk’ result (ie an acceptance of innocence). Mr Potter is unable to ring bells with children, young people or vulnerable adults, and this ends his bell-ringing career. Doesn’t that merit due process and transparent justice?

A church officer (such as David Potter MBE [..yes..]) is required to have both a Type A and Type B risk assessment. These may be found in the National Safeguarding Practice Guidance (Appendix 2, p29). Type B assessment is commissioned by the church with an independent risk assessor – the Lucy Faithful Foundation has been cited by the church to be such an assessor. If you read the Foundation’s website you will see that they deal mainly, if not totally, with offenders or self-confessed paedophiles. This strongly suggests that the assessment will be low, medium or high, but never ‘no risk’. You might then understand why an innocent person may be reluctant to engage in such a process – especially when the legal system has made no determination of guilt (or even of threat to child safety). From media reports, it appears that York Minster commissioned a risk assessment and also that David Potter MBE (..wait for it..) has been willing to take part in a risk assessment. Curiously, the Dean and Chapter make no mention of this.

If you follow the flow chart on p29 of the Guidance you will see that only “unfounded or malicious” allegations allow a church officer to be reinstated without safeguards. The church has not defined ‘unfounded’, and charges of ‘malice’ brought by the police are extremely rare. An outcome of ‘no further action’ by the CPS because of ‘insufficient evidence’ is the standard way of expressing an unfounded allegation, and the most likely way to express the outcome of a wrongful allegation. But the Church of England requires any ‘unsubstantiated’ allegations to be further assessed and risk management measures put in place. In practice, the church assumes guilt in all cases (except unfounded or malicious) and implements risk management strategies accordingly – even when an accused is cleared by the legal system.

There are, of course, insurance considerations: safety measures have to be put in place for such purposes if an allegation has been made. This may well be a significant factor, but one not readily related to publicly.

The Church of England’s overriding compulsion to jettison its workers in favour of self-protection suggests that promoting (or attempting to re-gain) its reputation is more important than upholding basic principles of justice. The church is sacrificing its present loyal workers and members in order to atone for its past sins and omissions.

Innocence has manifestly become a difficult concept for the church to handle in the area of child safeguarding. What happened to the common law presumption? While the church’s measures and guidelines are developing, there are few safeguards, if any, put in place to protect the innocent and wrongfully accused. David Potter MBE (…) has been caught up in the injustice of the church’s procedures and was supported by his bell ringers who also appreciated the unfairness. They acted like a quasi-jury: consider that these are 30 adult minds – not necessarily impartial, but certainly ‘good men and true’. The Dean and Chapter failed to persuade any of them that David Potter MBE (…) presented an ongoing risk to children. Some of them doubtless have children.

And so we must add the name of David Potter MBE (…) to those of Bishop George Bell, Bishop Michael Perham and Sister Frances Dominica, along with sundry unnamed and unknown others who are suffering indignity if not excommunication. In the fitful fever of paedomania, the mere allegation of child abuse has surpassed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the unforgivable sin. While the Church of England becomes a safe place for children, it is hell for those wrongly accused of abuse. Pastoral care? What’s that?

But to David Potter’s MBE (for services to campanology.. for this isn’t immaterial).

The Dean and Chapter of York Minster have effectively banned David Potter from bell-ringing for life. Setting aside the breach(es) of natural justice in process omission(s) and/or prejudicial judgments (and the absurdity of dismissing the Minster’s entire 30-strong Society of Change Ringers), the Honours Forfeiture Committee is obliged to consider when someone honoured has “done something to damage the honours system’s reputation”:

For example, someone’s honour can be taken away if they are:

  • sentenced to prison for at least 3 months for a criminal offence
  • censured or struck off by a professional or regulatory body for something directly relevant to their honour (eg a doctor being struck off)

The Dean and Chapter of York Minster have struck off their lead campanologist, who was appointed MBE for services to campanology. He has been permanently banned from the Minster’s bell tower. Could the Very Rev’d Vivienne Faull please explain why Mr Potter ought not to be referred to the Honours Forfeiture Committee?