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A disgrace

26 October 2018

OUR feature on the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) last week has prompted several approaches from readers with first- or second-hand experience of the CDM process. We have heard of delays, of exonerations that continue to appear grudging, of huge diocesan discrepancies in the application of the CDM, and of the threat of a CDM action used to persuade clergy to comply with some episcopal directive. At first glance, the handling of the complaint against Simon Marsh contributes further weight to these criticisms. The CDM complaint relates to an affair with an under-age girl, “Miss XY”, that started in 2009 and ended in 2013. In fact, unusual factors lengthened the process, among them a year-long police investigation and the death of Mr Marsh’s wife. The formal CDM complaint against Mr Marsh was filed only in December 2015, after the police had concluded that there was insufficient evidence to secure a criminal conviction. The church investigation, resulting in a tribunal hearing, none the less took three years, though the tribunal puts much of the blame for this on Mr Marsh, whom it accuses of lying when he painted the relationship as a romantic and platonic one, and anything further as the invention of Miss XY. As the tribunal’s report says: “The emotional damage to Miss XY must have been enormous, having regard to her age and the fact that she was cross-examined in intimate detail.”

This is one of the “aggravating features” that prompted the tribunal to reject Mr Marsh’s plea for a time-limited prohibition and, instead, impose a life-long ban, which is the nearest today’s Church of England gets to deposition from Holy Orders. It can only be hoped that Miss XY takes comfort from the fact that she has finally been believed in a formal setting, and that the Church at large concurs with the tribunal’s conclusion that “There has been gross pastoral abuse, which is disgraceful and a disgrace to the profession.”

This should not be the end of the matter. The parish of Bramhall would like, we are sure, nothing better than to move on, and fully deserves to, after more than four years in limbo. But Miss XY was groomed in plain sight, and there are safeguarding lessons to be learnt. There will always be a handful of manipulative, controlling priests who abuse their positions of power and trust. Every effort should be made to ensure that they do not inflict damage on others. Those who are reviewing the workings of the CDM have a difficult balance to strike. The system must not compromise either the pastoral or the supervisory relationship that senior clergy have with their priests. It must be flexible and unbureaucratic enough to brush away trivial or vexatious complaints in a timely fashion, but also robust enough to deal firmly and judiciously with the worst sorts of priest. 

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