Martyn Percy Dean Christ Church Oxford
Church of England

Christ Church Oxford: Dean Martyn Percy cleared for the fifth time

In the case of the allegation of sexual assault and harassment made against Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford, the Church of England determined that the CDM (Clergy Discipline Measure) should proceed to trial. But one of Britain’s most senior Court of Appeal judges, Dame Sarah Asplin, President of Tribunals for the Church of England, has ruled that it would be “entirely disproportionate” for the matter to be referred to a Clergy Disciplinary Tribunal.

The ruling is the latest setback for the Students (ie Fellows) of Christ Church in their prolonged, multi-million-pound battle with its Head of House, the Very Rev’d Martyn Percy. Judge Asplin was asked to rule on a complaint against the Dean made by a Canon of the Cathedral, the Rev’d Graham Ward. The complaint is also the subject of a parallel College process to try and eject the Dean. But in a 1,200-word judgment, Dame Sarah ruled that it would not be proportionate to refer the matter to a Church tribunal.

This CDM determination is the view of a Court of Appeal Judge, based on the thorough investigation undertaken by an independent barrister. The CDM test of “conduct unbecoming” is a lower bar than that of the “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful” threshold in the College Statute XXXIX required to remove the Dean. In a CDM, the proceedings can impose temporary barring and suspension, but without imposing the penalty of dismissal. Under the Statutes of Christ Church, full removal from office is the only sanction.

The complaint arose from an allegation from a female employee (‘Ms X’) that the Dean had commented on her hair in October last year and had “very briefly stroked it (though none of Professor Percy’s DNA was ever found in the tested locks).  The alleged incident was said to have been followed by a conversation about their respective ages. The Dean denied stroking her hair or that there was anything improper about their conversation.

Dame Sarah ruled that both witnesses and their accounts were “credible”, but that disciplinary tribunals were intended to deal with serious misconduct. “Although I do not intend to trivialise…allegations in any way,” she wrote, “it seems to me that it would not be proportionate to refer this matter to a tribunal. The incident itself was extremely short, the alleged hair stroking was even shorter and the language and the conduct as a whole was not overtly sexual,” she added. And then:

If this is put together with:
*the fact that [the employee] accepts that she was not upset in any way;
*stated originally that she was not perturbed (albeit she told the police that she was concerned what would happen next);
*the incident took place in a room which was or could be accessed by others;
*and [the employee] stated that she would have accepted an apology if the Dean had admitted what she says took place,
it seems to me that it is entirely disproportionate that this matter should be referred to a tribunal.

Ms X simply wanted an apology, and moreover was not upset by what had happened. This was a classic case of a slight misunderstanding crying out for internal mediation leading to early clearing of the air and reconciliation. As was pointed out at the time, Christians are exhorted to resolve disputes and differences at the lowest possible level (Mt 18:15): those who exhorted common sense mediation, conciliation, and proportionality of action are vindicated.

This ruling is the fifth time that an independent tribunal has ruled in the Dean’s favour. The police had already decided not to proceed with the same case in December 2020. A panel chaired by Sir Andrew Smith in 2019 also found in favour of the Dean. The Dean has also prevailed in a six separate previous National Safeguarding Tribunal (NST) investigations instigated by the College and their lawyers over the last twelve months, and also in a preliminary Employment Tribunal hearing.

Dame Sarah’s judgment brings an end to another Church of England and NST complaint filed by Christ Church. The CDM is over: the principle res judicata applies. Section 17 of the CDM rules: “If the president of tribunals decides that there is no case for the respondent to answer… thereafter no further steps shall be taken in regard thereto.” The Core Group is functus officio. Dame Sarah’s judgment was written on the basis of a full investigation by an independent barrister appointed by the Church of England, which ought now to declare that the Dean is in good standing with the Church.

Except that the Church of England has determined that he remains suspended.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

But the Christ Church Inquisition is quite another matter:

christ church oxford percy tribunal

You’d think the Censors of Christ Church must be running out of Students they can call on who might act impartially and fairly in this matter, but they seem determined to engineer a judgment of “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful” behaviour, come what may. This will be difficult, given Dame Sarah’s ruling: if there was no finding of any sexual element in the ‘hair stroking’, there was no sexual assault and no harassment. Indeed, all of the safeguarding restrictions to which Martyn Percy has been humiliatingly subject in both Cathedral and College ought now to be lifted, because he manifestly presents no predatory danger to anyone.

But the Diocese of Oxford and Bishop Steven Croft seem content to throw one of their own under a bus. Or, rather, having already thrown him under a bus with a conveniently manipulated CDM, seem determined to leave him writhing in the middle of the road with crushed bones and mangled flesh (not to mention anxious mind). Martyn Percy has received clarification from the President of Tribunals that he is not guilty of serious misconduct, yet the Bishop of Oxford will not even acknowledge that the risk which ought now to be re-evaluated has changed.

The risk assessments were predicated upon the premise that the Dean presents a generalised sexual risk to everyone in College and Cathedral, male and female, young and old alike. They were created by two persons with plain animus against the Dean, and have been exposed as the politically motivated fiction that they always were. They politicised this incident and weaponised safeguarding for ancillary purposes. This much is obvious to all who have eyes. So where is the justice? Where is the mercy? Why in the name of Christ is the Church of England determined to ensure that a “significant cloud” remains over the name of Martyn Percy?