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Oxford admits failings in spiritual-abuse case

11 September 2020

Independent review uncovers confusion and delay over CDM


The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, speaking at a meeting of the General Synod

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, speaking at a meeting of the General Synod

THE Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, has apologised for “shortcomings” identified by an independent review of his diocese’s handling of a case of spiritual abuse. These failings “contributed to the distress of the survivors”, he said.

Dr Croft was responding to the publication on Friday of a report into the case of the Revd Timothy Davis, formerly Vicar of Christ Church, Abingdon. In 2018, Mr Davis was convicted by a church tribunal of spiritual abuse against a teenage boy, in what was thought to be the first judgment of its kind (News, 12 January 2018).

Mr Davis was subsequently “prohibited from the exercise of holy orders for a period of two years” by a tribunal panel (News, 16 March 2018). The prohibition expired in March of this year, but, should he wish to return to ministry, he will have to undertake a formal risk assessment. He is barred from returning to his former parish.

The independent reviewers, Amanda Lamb and Timothy Briden, were asked by Dr Croft to conduct an independent review of the circumstances surrounding a complaint made by the Archdeacon of Dorchester, the Ven. Judy French, under the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) against Mr Davis.

The reviewers were given “unrestricted access” to diocesan documents, including Mr Davis’s “blue file”, conducted “numerous interviews”, and received written submissions, their report says.

The case has left “a legacy of discontent” in Mr Davis’s former parish, the report states. It notes “a feeling from a significant number that concerns about the Reverend Davis’ attitude and behaviour had been brought to the attention of senior diocesan staff at an early stage, but that the responses had been slow and partial, and had failed to address major concerns”.

Concerns about Mr Davis had been communicated to the Area Bishop of Reading at that time, the Rt Revd Andrew Proud, in October 2013, who had led the parish to understand “that this was a ‘pastoral’ situation between an unwell vicar and a family struggling with their own difficulties”.

The report continues: “There was no recognition of the potential for more serious, safeguarding, issues, until March 2015 when the then priest in the parish . . . referred issues to Bishop Colin [Fletcher, Bishop of Dorchester] and the then DSA (Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser). By then the Reverend Davis was on sabbatical. There is no explanation as to why the earlier issues had not been followed up more robustly. . .

“The lack of direct involvement from senior clergy in the diocese in seeking to understand what was happening on the ground, in spite of the warnings which had been received, is regrettable.”

The report says that, in the early months of 2015, Bishop Fletcher held several meetings with three “potential complainants”. Two of these people came away from the meetings “under the impression that, through expressing their serious concerns to Bishop Colin, they had made formal complaints against the Reverend Davis which would have initiated a disciplinary process”.

This belief was “mistaken”, the report says, because the CDM stipulates that “a complaint must be made in writing and accompanied by written particulars of the alleged misconduct, together with supporting evidence”.

This “innocent misunderstanding” had “a grave impact upon subsequent events. In particular it delayed the proceedings and led to what was perceived to be a suppression of their complaints.”

The report recommends that, in future, bishops, archdeacons, and national safeguarding officers should be provided with “a simple explanatory hand-out to be given to those likely to make a formal complaint”. Potential complainants should also receive support from a designated person, such as “a retired police officer or legal executive”.

With Bishop Fletcher believing, correctly, that the complainants had not registered a formal complaint under the CDM process, in July 2015, he asked the Archdeacon of Dorchester, the Ven. Judy French, “to consider making a formal complaint under the CDM”, the report says.

Once Archdeacon French had initiated a formal complaint, the status of those who had made the initial, verbal, complaints was “diminished to that of witnesses”, the report says. This meant that they lost their rights under the CDM and Rules, such as “to be informed of, and to be involved in, the progress of proceedings”.

The witnesses felt that “the Archdeacon had been very poor at communicating with them, and from when she took over the complaint it was out of their hands and they had no idea what was happening. They did not know the details of the complaint and were left feeling that they were somehow suspects rather than complainants.”

The dissatisfaction would “largely have been avoided had the complaint begun on a proper footing without the need for the Archdeacon’s intervention”, the report says.

The report notes that the case was further complicated by the fact that this was “the first CDM case to have raised issues of spiritual abuse”. The absence of a legal definition of spiritual abuse “caused particular uncertainty for those involved” in the case (Features, 16 August 2019).

While Archdeacon French benefited from the advice of “an experienced ecclesiastical lawyer”, the report notes, “Such assistance will not always be readily available. . . It is therefore essential that in potentially complex CDM cases like the present, dioceses should arrange and pay for competent legal advice for the benefit of archdeacons acting as complainants.”

The report also notes the way in which changes in the diocese’s management and structure affected the handling of the case. These included the amending of the archdeaconry and deanery boundaries in which the parish was located, and the vacancy of the see of Oxford during the early stages of the CDM proceedings, which meant that the diocesan bishop’s powers had to be exercised by the area bishops. This “division of responsibility” resulted in a lack of information being passed on to the parish about the complaints against Mr Davis and his absence from duty. “The result was inevitably confusion and the circulation of rumour within the parish.”

For complicated CDM proceedings of this kind, the report suggests that dioceses should have “a preexisting plan involving bishops, archdeacons, the diocesan communications officer and (where appropriate) the diocesan safeguarding adviser. If the key participants know in advance what is expected of them, a lack of co-ordination will be avoided.”

The situation was further complicated, the report notes, by a report from the then diocesan safeguarding adviser, which had been sent to Bishop Fletcher in May 2015, two months before CDM proceedings were initiated.

The DSA’s report outlined “the unorthodox approach” that Mr Davis took to a youth-mentoring scheme in his parish, and “the development of an over close relationship with W1”, whose family Mr Davis had moved in with. It described Mr Davis’s behaviour as “clearly inappropriate” and “tantamount to emotional and spiritual abuse” (although there had been no allegation of sexually inappropriate behaviour).

After receiving the DSA’s report, Bishop Fletcher told the clergy and churchwardens of Christ Church, Abingdon, that Mr Davis “could continue to function as a vicar but that he wanted a careful investigation of the concerns, without prejudging the result”, the report says.

The report describes this as “not, with the benefit of hindsight, an appropriately robust response to what was by then a range of concerns”.

It continues: “We feel there was a definite safeguarding thread, including abusive pressure and potential grooming behaviour. This inadequate response was at least partly due to the mixed messages the Bishop was receiving about the seriousness of the situation.”

The potential safeguarding issues which had been highlighted were then “overtaken by the formality of the Archdeacon’s investigation process, which was indeed conducted in compliance with church procedures. . .

“An element of confusion may have entered the matter, as to whether the chief concern was safeguarding or spiritual abuse. It is relevant that the identification and definition of spiritual abuse was at an emerging stage during this process for the Church, and there is still continued discussion about the potential overlap of definitions of emotional abuse with spiritual abuse.”

The report also addresses the state of Mr Davis’s mental health and the amount of pastoral support that he received. While saying that Mr Davis’s mental state at the time “remains unclear to us”, the reviewers state: “There may . . . in future be cases in which the question of medical evidence becomes of critical importance. For this purpose it is desirable that funding be made available in appropriate cases so that a wholly independent medical report from a suitably qualified medical practitioner can be put before the Tribunal.”

The reviewers were told that Mr Davis had received no pastoral support during the CDM proceedings, although he had after the penalty was imposed. “It is not clear to us why pastoral support was forthcoming so late, since an earlier intervention may well have been of benefit to the Reverend Davis. . . The prompt provision of pastoral support for respondents is an important requirement which ought to be treated as a high priority at diocesan level.”

The report also raises concerns about the treatment of witnesses during CDM tribunals. One witness told reviewers “that she found the process of the investigation and Tribunal so traumatic it was worse than the actual incidents” and that she felt “very poorly supported”.

After the tribunal hearing, the witnesses “were not told what would happen next, and they did not know how decisions would be made about the Reverend Davis and any further role as a minister”.

“A very serious impact for W2 has been that at the time that we met her, she had not returned to church since the investigation and had lost her trust in the Church of England to protect and support her and people like her.”

The report says: “The assistance given to witnesses involved in the CDM process, especially at or shortly before tribunal hearings, is either fragmentary or non- existent. We recommend that better co-ordinated arrangements are made, probably at provincial level, for witness support.”

The report also criticises “the potential delay between the formal referrals to tribunals and the resultant hearings”. Reducing the number of tribunal members from five to three — a legally qualified chair, an ordained member, and a lay member — would make it “capable of being convened sooner, and administered more efficiently, than one consisting of five members”.

Responding to the report, Dr Croft said: “On behalf of the diocese of Oxford, I am very sorry indeed for the shortcomings identified in this case review. They have contributed to the distress of the survivors and the many people affected in Christ Church, Abingdon. Though they had no bearing on the penalty, I also recognise the additional emotional toll that these shortcomings placed on the Revd Tim Davis.

“As a diocese, we are deeply committed to learning from these events and to the safeguarding of children, young people, and vulnerable adults. During the last four years, we have invested heavily in our safeguarding team, in training and safer processes of support, review and oversight.

“This report also contains lessons for the whole Church of England that are already being considered through greater awareness of spiritual abuse, the development of better safeguarding processes, and the planned revision of the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM). In the mean time, the diocese will be working to increase awareness of the CDM, and the advice and support people can expect to receive.”

 A spokesman for the diocese of Oxford said: “Resourcing of safeguarding, together with our policy and practice, has improved significantly over the past four years. While there has been a culture change in the handling of safeguarding disclosures, we know that challenging questions, curiosity, seeking feedback, and speaking truth to power is at times difficult.

“The diocese is now considering the skills development and training provision that can begin to address this. Meanwhile, we have responded to each of the recommendations contained in the review.”   

Final Reflections from the report’s authors: What people would like to see as the outcome  

“In the course of our conversations with people in the parish, some important themes have emerged which we list here:

• there needs to be transparency in the handling of safeguarding issues;

• there needs to be a clear communication path when safeguarding issues are raised;

• someone needs to be identified within the parish to whom people can go to speak safely about parish clergy;

• there needs to be understanding of what it feels like to be complaining about your own parish priest, as a member of the parish, and not as a clergy person;

• speeding-up of the complaint process is needed;

• clear explanations of each stage of the complaint and tribunal process;

• open communication with the parish, as needed, about the progress of complaints;

• further work is needed in the parish, as people are still unclear about what happened and whether the Revd Davis has any future role in the parish.

“These reflections make a fitting epilogue to our report.  We commend them to the attention of the Diocese and the wider Church.”

Read the full report and information about how the diocese is responding here

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