Christ Church continues to struggle to find peace

11 October 2019

Dons argue that the Percy judgment should stay secret

Church Times

Christ Church, Oxford, the cathedral spire seen from Tom Quad

Christ Church, Oxford, the cathedral spire seen from Tom Quad

A NEW row is brewing in Christ Church, Oxford, despite the exoneration of the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy (News, 30 August). The Cathedral Chapter has now sought its own legal advice about the actions of a group of senior dons who accused the Dean of “immoral, scandalous, and disgraceful behaviour” (News, 5 November 2018).

As a consequence, there are reports that members of the Chapter have, in turn, been harassed and threatened with legal action. On Wednesday, Dr Percy declined to comment.

The small group of dons used an estimated £1.6 million of college funds to pursue the Dean, who is also Head of House (i.e. Master of the college) after he raised questions about governance and pay scales, including his own. He was cleared of all charges in August, in an internal inquiry led by Sir Andrew Smith, who produced a judgment of more than 100 pages. It is this document that is at the centre of the new row.

Besides the cost to the college of pursuing the complaint, Dr Percy is thought to have spent £350,000 defending himself. Since his exoneration and adverse publicity about the case, it is being reported that the college has lost approximately £2 million in cancelled donations. A committee of Christ Church alumni have called the situation “tawdry and damaging”.

Despite this, there have been no apologies or resignations. The group, called a “cabal” by the alumni, which obtained the agreement of the college’s 66-strong Governing Body to initiate the action, has refused to let the Governing Body see an unredacted copy of the judgment, despite a six-hour meeting on 25 September at which its publication was demanded.

It is understood that two appendices make up about half the length of the judgment. These contain documents and correspondence gathered to support the charges against Dr Percy, and to defend against them.

Asked by the Church Times for a list of individuals who had seen the judgment, a spokesman for the college replied simply: “The tribunal report remains private and confidential.” Sir Andrew Smith declined to comment.

The Chapter, which has a formal relationship to its Dean which is distinct from the college (the cathedral and college have a joint foundation), sought independent legal advice from an ecclesiastical lawyer. Members of the Chapter have now added their voices to those calling for the judgment to be seen in full, at least by the Governing Body, on which all but one of the senior canons sit.

The charges brought against Dr Percy in October last year (News, 5 November 2018) could not have proceeded without the Chapter’s acquiescence, but members were given few details at the time, and thought that they were voting for an investigation, not the quasi-adversarial prosecution that ensued.

Whereas the cathedral community and many in the college have welcomed Dr Percy back with warmth — he was given a spontaneous round of applause at his first eucharist on 1 September — there are others in the college who remain antagonistic. A visitor said last week that, within a hour of arriving, four separate individuals had complained that the atmosphere there was worse than ever.

The Chapter has been acting in this matter independently of Dr Percy, who recognises a conflict of interest. Having been involved in the tribunal, he is assumed to have seen a copy of the judgment; but he is legally bound not to show it to any member of Chapter.

Pressure is mounting on the Governing Body to insist on access to the whole of the judgment. The committee of the alumni has stated: “The current students, staff, and alumni cannot possibly recover belief in a Body which has either not seen the truth, or, worse, is wilfully avoiding the truth. There will need to be apologies. No doubt there will also be embarrassment for some. Regrettably, some may feel they have no future at the House. But if Governing Body does not see the judgment in full, it would damn itself as unfit to govern.”

One of the alumni, Jonathan Aitken, a former MP and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said this week: “Events are clearly moving towards the full publication of the unredacted tribunal findings, despite fierce rearguard action being fought by those criticised in it. We, the alumni and Christ Church Association, are determined to bring out the whole story.”

He said that the association would be seeking a meeting with the Governing Body.

The spokesman for the college said: “As you can appreciate, it will take time to reflect on the events of the past year, and we would ask you to allow us the space to do this. The House will be considering the tribunal process, and, more generally, its governance arrangements. The latter will be reviewed through an independent review as has been recommended by the Charity Commission.” He also said that total costs for the tribunal had not been confirmed.

The Commission, which has been sent a copy of the judgment, has not remarked on it. It did say, however: “While the trustees in this case appear to have followed the charity’s rules, the large sums reportedly spent on the tribunal are a concern.”

A spokesman for the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said on Tuesday: “We are doing all that we can to support Martyn, Chapter, and the wider college to move forward in a positive way.”

The Governing Body was due to meet again on Wednesday, as the Church Times was going to press.

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