A MAN who poisoned, defrauded, and murdered an elderly man was just five days away from attending a Bishops’ Advisory Panel to discern whether he had a vocation to the priesthood, a trial has revealed.
A jury at Oxford Crown Court heard that Benjamin Field, aged 28, of Wellingborough Road, Olney, had covertly administered drugs and alcohol to Peter Farquhar, a former head of English at Stowe school, aged 69, before murdering him in October 2015. He had convinced Mr Farquhar, who changed his will to make Field the beneficiary, that he was losing his mind.
Last Friday, Field was found guilty of the murder of Mr Farquhar, but cleared of conspiracy to murder Ann Moore-Martin, a neighbour of Mr Farquhar with whom be began a relationship after Mr Farquhar’s death. It is understood that police are planning to question Field, who had a list of 100 targets, including his own parents, about other deaths.
The son of a Baptist minister, Field was a 22-year-old student at the University of Buckingham when he met Mr Farquhar, a guest lecturer at the university in 2011. He began to accompany Mr Farquhar to Stowe Parish Church, in the grounds of Stowe School. He was made deputy churchwarden and, in September 2014, secretary of the PCC. This position enabled him to alter the minutes of meetings, adding comments about Mr Farquhar’s declining health.
“Going to church was about manipulating Peter,” he said during the trial. “It’s where I might meet people who were potential targets.”
In 2013, he moved in with Mr Farquhar, who had struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with his Christian beliefs. The following year they had a betrothal ceremony at St Mary’s, West Hampstead, presided over by the Revd Andrew Foreshew-Cain, now Chaplain of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who had been Mr Farquhar’s spiritual director for several years but met Field only once.
Field suggested to Mr Farquhar, and to his family and friends, that he could be suffering from dementia. He admitted to poisoning, gaslighting, and defrauding Mr Farquhar to inherit his wealth when he died. In his journal, Mr Farquhar wrote about reading Field’s diary and developing misgivings about changing his will.
He was discovered dead by his cleaner. An inquest recorded the death as caused by alcoholism. The prosecution argued that Field had suffocated him.
After Mr Farquhar’s death, Field inherited £20,000 and a life interest in his property. Soon afterwards, he told the congregation at Stowe that he was considering ordination.
He first met the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, the Revd Caroline Windley, in April 2016, having worked with a vocations adviser for two years. Ms Windley met him eight times over the next seven months.
Field was “not seen as a strong candidate — his behaviour and personality were an issue”, a statement from the diocese of Oxford says. But there was enough backing from references — all of which “indicated support and enthusiasm for Field, who had won over everyone both in the church and the university” — to send him to the next stage of discernment.
“The discernment process depends in part on gathering information, in talking to the candidate, in pushing hard to see whether they have potential and a real calling. The DDO followed very best practice, and had vague uncertainty that was hard to describe. She therefore indicated this to the BAP for their view.”
Thames Valley PolicePeter Farquhar
Field had been informed that, were he to be successful at the BAP, he would be subject to additional psychological scrutiny before being allowed to proceed to training. Ms Windley’s concerns were recorded for selectors to explore.
In January 2017, two months before the BAP, and Field’s arrest, the Revd Stephen Bushell, working in private practice as a psychotherapist, raised “serious concerns” with Ms Windley.
Field had asked Mr Bushell to become his spiritual director and, at the recommendation of Ms Windley, this had become counselling. Mr Bushell delivered five sessions.
Ms Windley was not aware that by January 2017, Field was already the subject of police enquiries about his relationship with Miss Moore-Martin.
Field began targeting Miss Moore-Martin, a former headmistress of St Mary’s Roman Catholic primary school, in Bicester, shortly after Mr Farquhar’s death. He persuaded her to give him tens of thousands of pounds, and to change her will so that he would inherit her home.
Field was arrested two months before Miss Moore-Martin died of natural causes aged 83 in 2017, having already been tricked out of £31,000. He was cleared of conspiracy to murder and attempted murder.
The senior investigating officer, Mark Glover, described Field as “cruel, calculating, manipulative, deceitful. I don’t think evil is too strong a word for him.”
Police discovered that Field had written thousands of pages about seducing and killing elderly people. There are fears that he may have had other victims. At the Red House nursing home in Maids Moreton, where he worked part-time providing end-of-life care for dementia sufferers, he filmed himself “taunting an elderly woman at the home about loneliness, pain and death”, The Times reported.
A source told the newspaper: “He groomed everyone he came into contact with. These are not frail, confused people. They only became vulnerable after meeting him. The church has learnt that grooming an entire congregation is possible.”
Sentencing has been adjourned while a psychiatric report is prepared.
The Ven. Guy Elsmore, Archdeacon of Buckingham, said parishioners who had considered Field a friend had lost self-confidence and trust in others. “We are used to thinking about the safeguarding of children and young people, but this case is particularly highlighting how older people, particularly single people, can be made vulnerable by a manipulative individual,” he said.
Stowe Parish Church is in an interregnum. The honorary Priest-in-Charge from 2015, the Revd
Susan Ann Sampson, Assistant Chaplain at Stowe, left her post in 2017. The Revd Val Plumb, the archdeaconry’s Area Dean for Rural Mission and Development, had been placed at Stowe and would “work alongside the churchwardens and the Stowe Ministry Team to ensure the best possible pastoral care for the people there”, the diocese said.
A group drawn from the dioceses’s Authorised Listeners had been available for confidential telephone support for parishioners and the Archdeacon and Bishop of Buckingham had paid frequent visits to the parish:
“As further details emerged about Ben’s manipulation and court case loomed, the level of support available was increased,” the diocesan statement says. “Many parishioners were asked for witness statements. Throughout the trial, a new, Thursday-morning eucharist has provided a safe place for parishioners to gather and pray together. This has given great strength. There has also been supportive activity in Maids Morten church.”
The independent chair of the Oxford diocese safeguarding panel is now commissioning someone from outside the Church to lead a lessons-learned review.
“We need to look at the facts which have emerged during the trial and see what lessons there are for the diocese ofOxford and indeed for the wider Church,” the statement said. “This is an exceptional case, and we are determined to learn from every aspect. It certainly will reflect on the safeguarding provision for older people in the whole of society.”
The Revd Dr Daniel Inman, DDO in Chichester diocese, 2016-19, writes:
THE level of manipulation was clearly extraordinary. However, I do think Ministry Division has been working hard — and continues to review — how we assess personality and character. The Traffic Light Document that DDOs work through is meant to be the start of a much deeper conversation (than it used to be) about what makes people tick, and exploring their capacity for empathy, their experience and use of power.
The danger might be, however, people will learn to give the “right” answers. A good discernment process will seek as broad a range of opinion as possible, and if a spiritual director were to make an intervention, it should take those concerns very seriously, pause and investigate further.
I imagine that all dioceses will — as a result of IICSA — be required to include psychological assessment as part of discernment before too long. In Chichester we already do this, alongside several other dioceses. This has been helpful, and led to stopping the discernment process for several candidates thus far.
Might the Church also be served well by having a regularly moderated cadre of permanent advisers at a BAP who are experienced psychologist-spiritual directors? Such people are too few and far between in our discernment processes, but I imagine would be extremely precious as “firewalls” against characters such as Field, able to explore the complex landscape of the psycho-sexual, and experienced in identifying narcissistic traits or, indeed, psychopathic tendencies.
Frankly, very few Pastoral Advisers are equipped for such work, but leaving such discernment purely at the diocesan level has its dangers, particularly if there is no quality assurance.
While we in Chichester have worked hard in the past few years to improve this part of discernment, I’m well aware that, as a Church, there may be still some way to go.