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Safeguarding issue silences bells of York Minster

19 October 2016

Sam Atkins

On the ropes: an archive photo of David Potter in the York Minster ringing chamber, with Dr David Hope, a former Archbishop of York

On the ropes: an archive photo of David Potter in the York Minster ringing chamber, with Dr David Hope, a former Archbishop of York

A SAFEGUARDING issue was re­vealed on Monday to be at the centre of the row that blew up last week over bell-ringing in York Minster.

To furious protests by the na­­tion’s bell-ringers, the entire band of ringers at York Minster had been summarily sacked on Tuesday of last week, for reasons that at first were unclear.

At the time, the Dean, the Very Revd Vivienne Faull, and the Chap­ter alluded only to “health and safety”, and the need to bring the ringers under the control of the Chapter, in line with its other volunteer teams.

All 30 ringers were dismissed en masse, and the Minster’s bells are likely to be silenced until next Easter. The ringers were told to remove their belongings immedi­ately from the ringing room, under Minster Police escort; and the belfry locks were changed.

But after the dismissals had attracted near-universal condemna­tion, including a 17,000-strong peti­tion, the Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, on Monday issued a new explanation for the Chapter’s actions: “Earlier this summer, it was necessary for the Chapter to take action regarding a member of the bell-ringing community on safe­guarding grounds.

”This came after complex multi-agency activity involving City of York Council, the York Diocese Safeguarding Adviser, and the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Officer.”

Some members of the York Minster Society of Change Ringers, he said, had “consistently challenged the Chapter’s authority” on this important matter.

The ringer in question was named this week as David Potter, aged 66, a former part-time primary-school teacher in York, who was arrested by police on 23 December 1999 after an allegation of indecent assault was made against him by a young girl. He was sus­pended from the York Minster bell team, and from his teaching post at Upper Poppleton primary school, on the outskirts of York.

In early 2000, it was announced that no charges would be brought; and in the same year Mr Potter was made an MBE for his services to bell-ringing. He has never been convicted of any related offence. Mr Potter’s solicitor, Colin Byrne, of Howard & Byrne Solicitors, said: “Mr Potter has no cautions or con­victions or any civil findings ever made against him.

”Issues surrounding the bell-ringers and the Minster is a private and confidential matter between those two parties, but the process that he has been subject to has shown a disregard for due process, and, equally, the treatment of his fellow bell-ringers.”

None the less, this week North Yorkshire Police said in a statement that in June 2015 “it had applied for a Sexual Risk Order (SRO) following concerns raised during multi-agency safeguarding processes about a 66-year-old York man and his contact with children.

”The order was initially granted by York Magistrates’ Court on an interim basis, pending final deter­mination, but ultimately the court refused to grant a sexual risk order, but other safeguarding measures were put in place by other author­ities.”

York Minster’s communications officer, Sharon Atkinson, said on Wednesday: “Even after an investig­ation has taken place, and even if there is no prosecution achieved as an outcome of those investigations, if the authority, which in our case is the Chapter of York, cannot feel confident about an individual and their activity, and the way that they conduct themselves . . . if the organisation still feels there is a real or perceived risk, it can take a decision to exclude a person from a particular area of activity. That is what the Chapter did in relation to a member of the bell-ringing team.

”There has to be a process in which the church authorities have to look at the papers after any legal process has finished, and make a judgement as to whether or not they feel that the person, doing this particular activity, should be allowed to continue. In some circumstances, conditions are allowed, such as ensuring they are not on their own with people of a certain age-group. Chapter discussed the whole case with other agencies, and decided to exclude this person from the bell tower, but not the rest of church.”

In April 2015, a safeguarding notification from the diocese was circulated to incumbents. It is understood to state that, pending the outcome of inquiries, Mr Potter should not be permitted access to bell towers of churches in the diocese to ring or for any other purpose. The ban has since been extended.

Mr Potter was, until last week, once again President of the York Minster Society of Change Ringers; and his name is said to have been included recently in a list of York Minster ringers to form the Minster band for the 2017 National 12-bell Striking Competition.

The Minster’s current Master, Peter Sanderson, is Mr Potter’s brother-in-law. Other members of the family are also part of the Minster band. Mr Sanderson denied the Chapter’s claim that the band had disregarded its attempts to implement a safeguarding policy, calling it “a complete lie”. In an interview on BBC radio, he said that he knew of no reason that might have led to the ringers’ sacking. “It came out of the blue,” he said.

This week, the bell-ringers posted a further rebuttal on their website, which says: “If [safeguarding] was the reason for the Dean and Chapter’s decision to dismiss the band last week, we do not understand why this was not communicated to us at the time.”

One of the ringers, Alice Ether­ington, set up an online petition “by a member of the public”, which had garnered nearly 17,000 signatures by midweek. She said: “The reason for our sackings is that we questioned the way they have treated someone after the closure of the incident. They excluded someone, and we wrote letters saying: ‘How come you have excluded someone if you have no issues against them?’”

Mr Sanderson told the Church Times: “I stick to my version of events. They have decided to imple­ment a change plan for the team, and it has obviously gone pretty disastrously wrong. They were losing the public-relations battle.”

Others have also criticised the Dean for mismanaging the affair. Chris Mew, the president of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, the organisation that re­­presents ringers worldwide, said: “Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of either side, it was appal­­lingly handled.”

On Monday, six days after the ringers had been made to leave the 14 heavy bells in the unsafe “up” position, the Chapter called in the bell-founders John Taylor’s of Loughborough to ring the bells down, at a cost, it is said, of £700. Until recently, Mr Potter was a director of John Taylor’s.

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