Press: Twists and turns of the Percy saga in the FT

08 March 2019

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Christ Church College, Oxford

Christ Church College, Oxford

THE governing body of Christ Church College, Oxford, got their retaliation in for some of the sympathetic coverage that the Very Revd Dr Martyn Percy has had in his struggle with them (News, 9 November).

On Tuesday, The Financial Times had a long piece, referring to him throughout as “Rev Percy”, which was clearly based on briefings from the college, and zeroed in on the weakest spot in his case, which is that, for most people, Dr Percy is quite well-off without a pay rise. He enjoys a salary of £90,000, as well as the use of a magnificent house, “a gardener, a cleaner, a book budget and a research allowance”, whether or not other people with comparable jobs are paid even more.

The quotes capture exactly the feline quality of high-table malice. “Events have sharply divided opinion at Christ Church. Rev Percy’s critics consider he has an ‘autocratic’ style that jarred with insiders and that his behaviour over the past 18 months has been antagonistic and inappropriate. They strongly contest the notion that the dean’s reform agenda put him at loggerheads with the college.

“‘[The idea] this was a crusading dean attempting to reform an old college is a load of old codswallop,’ said one senior Christ Church figure. ‘It was the persistent nature of the lobbying [about his pay] that was the problem,’ added another individual with close links to the college. ‘The tone of his correspondence with others wasn’t quite right. Martyn has got a case to answer.’”

There is, though, a very considerable gap between what the statutes demand as grounds for his removal — which, according to the article, are “being convicted of an offence that renders the dean unfit for office; conduct that constitutes persistent failure or neglect of duties; physical or mental incapacity; or behaviour of an ‘immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature’” — and the less obviously heinous offence of failing to get the tone of his correspondence with others “quite right”.

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The tone of the correspondence between the college’s lawyers and Dr Percy has also been criticised in some quarters. I understand that, at one stage, he was offered a couple of weeks to leave his house voluntarily or face dismissal. That seems to me closer to “quite wrong” than to “not quite right”. The scandal has many twists and turns to come.

 

RETURNING to an older scandal, The Daily Telegraph interviewed the gay Tory MP Nigel Evans, who wanted to know why the spouses of married gay bishops have been excluded from the Lambeth Conference (News, 22 February).

“He said: ‘I’m wondering whether that’s discrimination. It could be tested in the courts. If it wasn’t for the gays in the Church, the Church would crumble! If it is tested in the courts, we would be doing the Archbishop of Canterbury a favour.’”

It would be an interesting case. The Church of England is guarded against all kinds of equalities legislation. I believe that there is a more general exception for religious bodies. But that does rather prompt the question whether the Anglican Communion qualifies as a religious body. I bet you could get Bishop Rod Thomas to argue that it does not. This would supply a more entertaining court case than the wrangle at Christ Church.

 

THERE were two more stories that illuminated the trial of Cardinal George Pell (News, 1 March). The less obvious one was in The Guardian, and not about the Church at all: the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse had been looking into how the British state treats vulnerable children in custody. It found that there were 1070 incidents of alleged sexual abuse in young-offenders institutions and secure training centres reported from 2009 to 2017.

“‘This number is shockingly high, given that there has been a significant drop in numbers of detained children over that time,’ the report said. ‘The current population is around 900.’”

None of this excuses the behaviour of the RC Church (or any other) over the years. But it does put into perspective its behaviour, and its fondness for covering things up, since almost the most shocking detail in the report is that, of these more than 1000 reported incidents, “only nine resulted in criminal charges, of which four resulted in convictions”.

The Minister now responsible expressed his shock and promised to do better.

In the Jesuit magazine America, Fr Jim McDermott, who attended large parts of the Pell trial, had an illuminating piece about the Cardinal’s background: “In the early 1970s he [Pell] lived with one of Australia’s most notorious serial paedophiles, Father Gerald Ridsdale, and was on a diocesan committee that oversaw Father Ridsdale being moved to new parishes four times in five years; yet he claimed he never knew anything about Father Ridsdale’s crimes.”

Pell had also said, in defence of his Church, that: “If the truck driver picks up some lady and then molests her, I don’t think it’s appropriate — because it is contrary to the policy — for the ownership, the leadership of that company to be held responsible.”

But I do hold the British state responsible for atrocities in its prisons, whether or not its policies deplore them.

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