Canon made assumptions about legacy, says tribunal

16 August 2019

A legacy left for the improvement of the church and churchyard was diverted to church school

CHRISTINE MATTHEWS/GEOGRAPH/COMMONS

St Oswald’s, Grasmere

St Oswald’s, Grasmere

THE Bishop’s disciplinary tribunal for the diocese of Carlisle has issued the penalty of a rebuke to Canon Cameron Butland for misusing part of a legacy left for the “maintenance, repair, or improvement of the church and churchyard” of St Oswald’s, Grasmere, in Cumbria, by diverting it to the Grasmere Church of England School Trust.

Canon Butland admitted the misconduct; but it was no part of the allegation that he had acted dishonestly or other than in good faith, and the tribunal considered that there was no basis for such a suggestion.

In August 2011, when Canon Butland was Rector of St Oswald’s, he was visited by a relative of Alene Hackett, who had left the parish many years earlier. Canon Butland did not know her, but was told that she had attended the Grasmere church school as a child, that she had a love of children, and that she had left a bequest. At that time, Canon Butland formed the belief that the bequest was somehow related to her time at the church school and her love of children.

Later, when Canon Butland returned from holiday, he found a letter from Garratts Solicitors, in Manchester, acting on behalf of the estate of Ms Hackett, informing him that she had left a bequest to the church. When replying to the solicitors, Canon Butland failed to disclose the number of St Oswald’s PCC, but, instead, provided the registered charity number of the Grasmere Church of England School Trust, of which he was a trustee.

In May 2012, the same solicitors wrote to him enclosing a cheque for £338,823.80, “representing the gift due to St Oswald’s Church from the estate of the late Alene May Hackett”. The cheque was not made out to St Oswald’s, or to the Grasmere Church School Trust, but to “The Grasmere Church of England School”.

That money was paid into the school trust account, and about £70,000 of it was spent on building works at the school. There was no suggestion of any misuse or misappropriation of the funds. In due course, the school trust accounts for the year ending 2012 were prepared and independently examined by a firm of accountants, Saint & Co, who made enquiries about the bequest and realised that the money should have gone instead to St Oswald’s Church.

The diocese and the Charity Commission were informed, and both conducted investigations. The diocese concluded that there had been no loss of charitable funds, because, at all times, the monies had been held within church funds. The Charity Commission decided to take no action because it had no specific concerns that funds had been misapplied, and concluded that, although the trustees had acted in error, they had done so in good faith.

In June 2014, St Oswald’s PCC held an extraordinary general meeting, chaired by an independent chairperson, at which Canon Butland was not present for any part of the discussion at which there could have been a potential conflict of interest. The situation as it had developed was rectified by the PCC’s resolving to make a gift to the school of those monies which had already been spent. The balance of the bequest was transferred back to the PCC.

Canon Butland subsequently left the parish to take up his current position as chaplain to the Bishop of Carlisle. In January 2018, a complaint against him was made under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 by the Archdeacon of Westmorland and Furness, the Ven. Vernon Ross, and referred to the bishop’s disciplinary tribunal.

The tribunal concluded that Canon Butland’s belief that Ms Hackett wished her gift to be used for the benefit of the children of Grasmere was a genuinely held belief, but that it did not excuse his subsequent errors. The letter from Garratts made it clear that the beneficiary was St Oswald’s Church. Canon Butland should have supplied details of St Oswald’s, or sought to ascertain the precise nature of the bequest.

An incumbent should have been aware, the tribunal said, that the terms of a will would set out the testator’s wishes, including any restrictions on the gift. It was not for Canon Butland to make assumptions as to the testator’s wishes, as he did by nominating the school trust. The need to take steps to confirm the nature of the bequest was emphasised by its size, the tribunal said, and “such a substantial sum should have put [him] on notice that it was necessary to ensure that matters were dealt with appropriately.”

The issue had caused some upset within the community, and the tribunal had been told that the errors had given rise to difficulties in fund-raising since that time. The tribunal said that there was “a wider issue about reputational damage to the church”. Legacy giving was “a vital resource in church funding”, and “testators must feel confident that the church will respect and adhere to their wishes”. The tribunal observed that errors such as those in this case “must inevitably diminish such confidence”.

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