Media

Christ Church’s PR agency colludes with FT journalist (and alumnus) to defame Dean

There has been progress (of sorts) in the ongoing dispute between Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, and the College’s Governing Body. The Charity Commission has ordered both parties to enter into mediation in order to prevent the good name of such a distinguished charity being brought further into disrepute. Both sides are enjoined not to brief publicly against the other, but, game to the last, the self-described “wily Censors” of Christ Church attempted to sign off with the last word. There is, after all, no point engaging the Church of England’s expensive PR agency Luther Pendragon to work their media magic if they don’t deliver a few bangs for their bucks.

Just before their meeting with the Charity Commissioners, Christ Church (or Luther Pendragon) had placed a piece with Financial Times journalist Henry Mance: ‘Oxford college rocked by allegations of leaks and blackmail’. It resurrected, without specific evidence, the Censors’ allegation that the Dean had been responsible for leaking the report of Sir Andrew Smith QC – a report which had not only comprehensively rejected each and every complaint against the Dean, but had appended a number of childish and malevolent emails which amply illustrated the animus which some members of the Governing Body felt toward him. Importantly, the report confirmed that safeguarding misconduct was never part of the grievance until all else had failed.

The report contained what is sometimes termed ‘inconvenient truth’, and discovering which of the recipient Trustees was responsible for leaking it to the media is apparently an important news story. But the FT article is thin on facts. It revealed that an investigation of the Dean’s phone records showed that whilst under intense pressure at the hands of (alleged) bullies, he turned to his friend and supporter, the Rev’d Jonathan Aitken, and they had a number of conversations by phone. What is really significant here is… O, sorry, that was the entire story. The Dean spoke to his friend on the phone.

Henry Mance did make it clear that Martyn Percy has always denied being the source of the leak; and that Jonathan Aitken has always denied receiving the report from the Dean. But Luther Pendragon wants us to infer conspiracy and collusion, and so that is what Mr Mance duly tweets.

Quite why such a tenuous story made it into one of the world’s premier financial newspapers is unclear. Maybe it was a slow news day? Perhaps it made it into print because Mr Mance is a Christ Church alumnus and sides with the Governing Body? Maybe Mr Mance knows someone at Luther Pendragon? We’ll just never know.

Unfortunately for the news-management fraternity, a real story broke immediately afterwards.

Jan Joosten, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford and member of Christ Church, had been convicted by a French court and sentenced to a year in prison for the possession of 28,000 indecent images of children, including child rape. Was he possibly one of the members of Christ Church’s Governing Body who had accused the Dean of  “a consistent lack of moral compass”?

Henry Mance attempted immediately to rescue the situation by distancing Professor Joosten from the complaint against Professor Percy, and in a knee-jerk tweet denied unequivocally that he was a member of the Governing Body.

 

The deleted tweet was the denial: “No he wasn’t.. he wasn’t on the Governing Body.” He deleted it when Gilo pointed out evidence to the contrary. Gilo, readers will recall, is a survivor of abuse whose nose for the scent of safeguarding hypocrisy is matched only by that of a Great White for a droplet of blood.

It had taken him just two minutes the previous day to find Prof Joosten listed online as a member of the Governing Body. After checking on the Christ Church website for Trustees and cross-checking with the Charity Commission webpage, he had written to the Censors. He enquired of the FT journalist if the offender had subsequently resigned, perhaps knowing of his impending trial. Why would a journalist tweet a knee-jerk denial and defence without checking the facts? Why would a journalist not want to follow up this story – unless his primary purpose was to be an apologist for his alma mater?

Christ Church issued a statement (in the tiniest font possible):

Gilo’s email to the Censors of Christ Church is worth quoting in full:

Dear Christ Church Censors

I have only visited Christ Church twice – on both occasions your Dean has been incredibly welcoming and supportive to survivors of church-context abuse. I was one of two survivors who made a very successful and peaceful protest at the installation of the Bishop in 2016. The college is a beautiful place and I hope to visit again.

I have a question, which I hope you may be able to help with.

Jan Joosten, Regius Professor of Hebrew, has just been sentenced to a year in prison in France for downloading 28,000 child abuse images (including Category A). It’s conceivable Joosten was one of the 41 signatories from the Governing Body who wrote to the Charity Commission to call Martyn Percy “lacking in moral compass”. Joosten is one of the 64 members of that body. If Joosten did sign that letter, he would have done so knowing the judicial process in his abuse case was coming to a close and sentencing was imminent. The two events have been barely a month apart.

A further question would then arise. Did any of the signatories know their esteemed colleague and co-signatory was on trial in France on such serious charges?

This situation would become beyond anything one could invent! I’m sure able journalists have already approached the Censors for clarification.

Somewhere behind Joosten’s private PC screen, which he described as his “secret garden” – were thousands of children abused, some raped. All of them have names – but none are known. That is the true nature of safeguarding…. and not at all in my view the ugly misappropriation that the Christ Church censors and colleagues have applied against Martyn Percy. Incidentally your statement on https://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/news/house/statement-regarding-professor-jan-joosten makes no mention of the victims, no mention of remorse or sorrow for so many thousands of lives impacted and shattered.

My question: is Jan Joosten one of the signatories to that letter?

Thank you.

Best regards,
Gilo

Co-Editor, Letters to a Broken Church

The College’s statement on Professor Joosten was swiftly amended:

Gilo sent a further email:

Dear Christ Church Censors

I note that you have read my letter. Thank you. Your statement, amended overnight (see attached), reflects concern and compassion for the victims in the Jan Joosten case that would have been better expressed at the outset. For a body that seems to be deploying ‘safeguarding’ in a weaponized way against one colleague – whilst showing no concern at all for many thousands of children abused for the secret gratification of another colleague – was extremely odd. Your Governing Body includes clergy and theologians in whom one might hope to find an innate understanding of these things, and to see an expression of real concern.

The question remains about whether Jan Joosten was one of the signatories to the letter sent to the Charity Commission from the Christ Church Governing Body.

I hope the question will be explored by the Charity Commission’s head of casework at the earliest opportunity.

Best regards,

Gilo

Co-Editor, Letters to a Broken Church

The Senior Censor of Christ Church, Professor Geraldine Johnson, responded:

Dear Gilo,

Thank you for your email and for your positive reflections on Christ Church. I am deeply sorry for the circumstances under which you have contacted us.

I realise you are aware of the ongoing dispute with the Dean. I became Senior Censor two years after this began and just a few days before the Smith Tribunal judgment was issued. One of my aims in taking up this role was, and still is, to bring the matter towards a resolution as soon as possible. I firmly believe that independent mediation with the Dean is the best way of achieving this, and I hope that with the aid of the Charity Commission, we can make this happen.

I can only stress that we treat safeguarding with the utmost seriousness at Christ Church. Survivors, such as yourself, were at the forefront of our thinking when we referred four cases related to the handling of non-recent reports of sexual assault and abuse to the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team in March 2020, using its general reporting email address. We did not do this lightly, but we have statutory responsibilities to report any such concerns and we take those responsibilities extremely seriously. I would also point out that the concerns were brought to our attention in the first instance by the media, as you will have seen from the statement we issued at the time. We were in touch with our regulator, the Charity Commission, about the referral and we support the NST’s decision to carry out an independent investigation.

Some have undoubtedly connected the referral to the dispute with the Dean, but this was simply not the case. Had we ignored the evidence that has been provided to the independent investigator, we would have been in breach of our regulatory duties, and we would have let these survivors down. Our priority now is to make sure that the investigation is carried out independently and properly. We have therefore not sought to correct the very misleading media coverage that has emerged in order to avoid in any way prejudicing the investigator’s work by entering into a public debate about information that is supposed to be kept confidential during the course of the investigation.

Separately, Professor Jan Joosten has been found guilty of the shocking crimes to which you refer, which we absolutely and unequivocally condemn. While he is employed by the University, not by Christ Church, as far as we know no-one at Oxford nor at Christ Church was aware he was under any kind of investigation. The first we knew about this was on Monday, 22 June 2020. We immediately suspended Professor Joosten (the immediate course of action available to us under our statutes). We have also contacted the local police and are assisting in their enquiries. As you noted in your follow-up message, we have updated our initial website statement to confirm that UK police have been notified and also to acknowledge explicitly the devastating impact these crimes have on survivors.

With regard to the letter from Christ Church trustees to the Charity Commission, Professor Joosten was one of the signatories. I too am appalled that he put his name to such a letter. I can only reiterate that none of his colleagues was, as far as we know, in any way aware of his situation. While that letter was not sent in any official capacity by Christ Church, quite simply, he should never have signed it.

I realise that, as a survivor yourself, it must not have been easy for you to contact us. I would like to thank you for doing so, and I hope I’ve been able to provide some context.

Best wishes,
Geraldine

Censors’ Office
Christ Church
Oxford OX1 1DP

The Fact that Jan Joosten had signed the complaint against Martin Percy knowing of his impending trial is a dreadful embarrassment for the College. One wonders at the secret state of the ‘moral compass’ of the other signatories. It is clear, however, that nobody else knew or could have known of Jan Joosten’s “secret garden”: a remarkable feature of the case is that French police investigating such a crime might have been expected to have liaised with their British counterparts and approached either the Dean or the Trustees of his College. It appears that this did not happen.

Yet the embarrassment continued. Placing a notice of the case on its website, the College plainly prioritised its reputation over all other concerns. It took Gilo to point out that wholly absent from their public pronouncement had been any consideration for the thousands of children who had been abused, and some in the most appalling way.

The College hadn’t thought of them; the academics hadn’t thought of them; the College’s PR agency Luther Pendragon hadn’t thought of them. It took a survivor-activist to think of putting the victims first. There is a lesson here for Christ Church and the Church of England alike. It is simply extraordinary that it took Gilo to make the necessary connections and ask the important questions.

Clearly, in cases like this, the views of both sides will find their ways into the public domain somehow. But upon reading of the close links between Christ Church, Luther Pendragon and the FT journalist (and Christ Church alumnus) Henry Mance, together with the significant lack of interest by the FT in asking the classic question of the College’s Censors: ‘What did you know and when did you know it?’, the reader might reasonably suspect an unhealthy enmeshment and a slight stepping over the line between reporting and PR advocacy.