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Church of England

Institutional bullying in the Church of England: it’s time to face the liturgical music

On 1st July 2021 a research paper by Clive Billenness was published to assist the Diocese in Europe in addressing the problem of institutional bullying within the Church of England. The General Synod meets at the end of this week and will be considering both Safeguarding and necessary reform of the much-criticised Clergy Discipline Measure. It is hope that the Billenness paper will greatly assist members in their understanding and deliberations.

Today the Bishop’s Council of the Diocese of Oxford is meeting, and it would do them no harm to consider this paper as part of their further deliberations, because they will doubtless notice the absence from their number of the ex officio member of that Council, the Dean of Christ Church, Dr Martyn Percy. That absence is simply explained: the Dean is a victim of precisely the kind of behaviour that the Billenness paper describes.

Thanks to three Risk Assessments created apparently by clergy of Christ Church Cathedral, but attributed, in wholly unexplained circumstances, to more professionally experienced third parties (who deny any knowledge of them), the Dean remains under the strictest of regimes within the Cathedral, College and University despite a Decision of the President of Tribunals that he is not guilty of “serious misconduct”, and that to take forward the complaint of Canon Ward as approved by the Bishop of Oxford by sending the matter for a full Tribunal hearing would be wholly disproportionate.

In any rational organisation the reception of such a clear Decision would have resulted in the lifting of those restrictions, or at the very least some significant revision, but none of the Dean’s relevant clergy colleagues think that way. They may do so, however, if they read the Billenness paper and understand exactly what it is they have been up to in facilitating what is described as ‘mobbing’. This is defined by Professor Miguel Nunez, Professor of Christian Ethics and Ministry at the Universidad Peruana Unión, in Lima, Peru, as “intentional and constitutes the systematic mistreatment of an individual, designed to cause him or her to resign”.

The Dean has endured three years of ‘mobbing’ at the hands of a small but determined group of Christ Church dons and clergy who have brought multiple unsubstantiated complaints (34 to date), and thereby isolated him from engagement with the Cathedral, College, Cathedral School and University. They have ignored all pleas for rational due process to prevail; concealed the decisions of judges whose decisions they sought when they went against them; ignored correspondence and broken the Dean’s health, and also broken him financially.

As part of the latest abuse, Cathedral clergy were complicit in spreading the narrative that the allegation against the Dean was “much more serious” than members of the Cathedral congregation and University knew. This was a wicked lie, as the President’s decision makes clear. She set out precisely what was alleged and pronounced categorically that the complaint was not “serious misconduct”.

The retention of the restrictions placed upon the Dean has the clear effect of sustaining the falsehood that he presents a safeguarding risk. Why else would such measures be imposed? This is ‘mobbing’, bullying behaviour, in which the Church of England is fully complicit.

In May last year an email was circulated around senior members of the Church House National Safeguarding Team following a third-party raising concerns at the behaviour of the Christ Church malcontent bullies and mobsters. The email was accidentally included in Subject Access Request, and this revealed that a year ago the church at a senior level knew what was going on – aided and abetted by their own lawyers, who incidentally act for the complainants in the series of false allegations.

The memo said: “This is messy, and of course I do agree with ***** I think we are being played, but we all knew that…”

So at senior levels in the Church of England it has been known and understood what is going on, and yet nothing has been done as events have unfolded: they offered no public support to the victim or condemnation of the bullies. The Dean later suffered a breakdown after the Bishop withdrew his supporting ‘link person’ without consultation, leading him to despair of justice at the hands of the institution he had served for decades.

The Billenness research paper usefully addresses the responsibility of an institution when it could reasonably foresee the consequences of its own actions. Given that the Church of England knew that the whole purpose of multiple complaints was to drive the Dean from office by wearing his resistance down, that would appear to be a low bar to clear if and when the Dean sues the Church for its knowing complicity.

The story worsens, for the Bishop was told at an early stage in writing who was doing what to defame and undermine the Dean. Further, he was told in writing by an authoritative and highly respectable source that the leaking of the allegation to the Daily Mail had been undertaken by a malcontent College don, yet the Bishop refused to retract his public accusation that it had been done by friends of the Dean. Reminded of this recently, the Diocesan website remains uncorrected.

Having the opportunity to publish the President’s decision in redacted form on the Diocesan website so that nobody could misrepresent what was and was not said in that Decision, the Bishop declined.

The Church of England rarely sees a cover-up that it does not like. Urged to make a public statement welcoming the President’s decision that the Dean does not present safeguarding risk to anyone, the hierarchy has been silent for over a month. When a General Synod colleague submitted the question: “Can you confirm that following the decision of the President of Tribunals on 28 May 2021 in the case of the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church… and in consequence of s17 (4) of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, all allegations against him within the Church of England are now concluded, and that he is, as one free of all safeguarding allegations, able to minister in all parts of the Church of England as soon as he has recovered his health?”, it was ruled out of order.

It is evidently a matter for the Bishop of Oxford, who seems to be part of the problem.

Resolving issues of institutional abuse is procedurally problematic. To whom does one complain when those who normally receive the complaints are part of the problem, and the same lawyers who will advise the Church of England also advise the Christ Church malcontents? I wrote to the Bishop to enquire, but received no reply. I similarly wrote to Church House, but received no reply. I have tabled a question for General Synod and it will be interesting to see what response I receive.

This really is a can of worms for the Church, not least because the Dean’s is the highest profile CDM/Safeguarding case, but by no means the only one. I have corresponded with one priest who is not permitted to tell anyone that the complaint against him has been concluded; and another, well into his second year of suspension with no proper evidence against him, who has received the response: “..it is difficult in these cases to determine the truth, and we have to make an assessment of the potential risk and what measures would be required on the basis that the allegation could be true, and X has reiterated  that our role is not to seek the truth but to believe X.”

Leaving aside the problem of how one begins to calibrates a risk without making a finding of fact (no court ever does), it seems we are still steeped in the culture of ‘no smoke without fire’ and guilt by denunciation. This is Soviet jurisprudence: ‘Show me the man and I will show you the crime’, as NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria asserted.

This problem was present when I and my General Synod colleague David Lamming began advocating for fair process for the late Bishop George Bell, only for the Archbishop of Canterbury to mar the clearing of his name by Lord Carlile by asserting that the late Bishop was still “under a significant cloud“. Under that cloud is getting crowded. I might include the Bishop of Oxford himself who only escaped a CDM hearing in the case of Matt Ineson by hiding behind the notorious and now repealed ‘one year rule’. So the Bishop who has not been judicially cleared on the evidence of suspicion of wrongdoing is currently torturing the Dean who has. Christ Church Oxford surely is the most peculiar of institutions.

Bishop Steven Croft may not lack company under the cloud. Archbishop Justin himself is coming under significant suspicion over the John Smyth scandal, and some victims are saying that he has been “economical with the actualité”. Andrew Graystone’s book Bleeding for Jesus will be published soon and I gather it makes interesting reading. However, I prefer to assess the evidence: I want a public presumption of innocence for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Christ Church alike, but the Church of England sounds an uncertain note in these matters.

The bulling issue will undoubtedly roll on. Clergy in the Winchester Diocese might be interested in the answer to my question of who may complain about institutional bullying and, of course, there is the whole issue of Jonathan Fletcher still to be clarified.

In comparison, the matter of the Dean’s outstanding HR issue pales into insignificance. My legal colleague and survivor advocate Richard Scorer, Head of Abuse Law at Slater and Gordon, expressed this rather well to me as we mused over the Dean enduring his third suspension while the Chair of the Iwerne Trust, who knew all the details of the Smyth abuse and covered it up for decades, continues to hold Permission to Officiate in the Church of England. “I never cease to be amazed at how they go bonkers over thin cases and ignore the ones where vast amounts of evidence of abuse have accumulated over years. But I suspect a lot is dictated by church politics,” he said.

He is probably right. Accountability – like paying taxes – is for little people.