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Murderer groomed parish, review says

23 October 2020

Churchgoers ‘were too ready to believe the best of Ben Field’

Thames Valley Police

An undated photo issued by Thames Valley Police last year showing Peter Farquhar (left) with Ben Field in Stowe Parish Church

An undated photo issued by Thames Valley Police last year showing Peter Farquhar (left) with Ben Field in Stowe Parish Church

A REVIEW commissioned by the diocese of Oxford of the circumstances surrounding the murder by Ben Field (News, 25 October 2019) has suggested that openness and transparency about sexuality might have helped protect his victim, Peter Farquhar.

The full report of the independent safeguarding review, published today, seeks to learn the lessons from Field’s conviction Mr Farquhar’s murder and the exploitation of Anne Moore-Martin.

Both men were active members of Stowe Parish Church, where Field groomed and exploited his vulnerable elderly victim by pretending to be interested in the church and ministry. The review says that he effectively groomed the vicar and congregation, becoming PCC secretary and a deputy churchwarden, and stating his intention of pursuing ordination to the priesthood. All the while, he was poisoning Mr Farquhar and convincing him that the effects were the result of dementia.

The review suggests that emotional intimacy is a basic human need, and all adults have the potential to be made vulnerable in this way. Mr Farquhar was a retired teacher from Stowe School — intelligent, sociable, and with a network of friends and family. A devout gay man, for whom celibacy was a way of reconciling his sexuality and his conservative Christian beliefs, he believed that he had an “emotionally intimate” friendship with Field.

Field, the son of a Baptist minister, was described during the court case as having a personality disorder that “included a lack of empathy, a callous lack of concern for the feelings of others, and an incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience”. He drugged, defrauded, and murdered Mr Farquhar, and sexually exploited and defrauded Miss Moore-Martin, a retired head teacher.

Field met the diocesan director of ordinands several times, as well as a spiritual adviser. The interest in the church was merely a scam, the review says: Field saw ordination as a route to being able to harm more people.

The case review explores issues about the recruitment of volunteers as well as potential ordinands. It concludes that the case presented challenges for the Church in three specific areas: abusive trust in a religious paradigm; attitudes towards sex and sexuality; and safe recruitment both of clergy and volunteers.

It describes Stowe Church, which subscribes to an Evangelical theology and conservative culture, as a closed community where “homophobic attitudes (unconscious, personal, or institutional) meant that Peter Farquhar’s sexual orientation was a ‘well-known secret’ that had not been publicly acknowledged. It was described and understood that Ben was Peter’s lodger.”

Fears had been expressed and responded to in what the review describes as “a particularly unhelpful theological paradigm”. It says that a culture that supported openness and transparency would better have supported Mr Farquhar. Some parishioners were not taken in, it says, but, instead of raising their concerns about Field’s insincerity, they had been led by their Christian beliefs to adopting a “See the best in everyone” mentality and remaining silent.

There is a fine line between respectful curiosity and unhelpful gossip, the review suggests. “The negative perception of ‘gossip’ in Evangelical settings as spiritual wrongdoing might inhibit concerns being expressed.” A further potential inhibiting factor was identified as Mr Farquhar’s own uncritical attitude to his relationship with Field: “Respect for him and his reputation meant that people were even less likely to question what was happening in his personal life.”

The review says that Mr Farquhar articulated his vulnerability and explained his hallucinations in terms of the presence of “evil” or “evil spirits” in his home. “His distress was responded to spiritually as it was believed to be a spiritual matter.”

The review acknowledges the benefit of hindsight. Its purpose was to extract the learning so that improvements could be made. “No system or processes can completely eliminate all risk; however, risks can be reduced, mitigated and managed,” it says.

It makes 13 recommendations for improving safeguarding awareness and prevention, besides supporting a shift to a more open culture within the Church about safeguarding. It warns that, in the context of an older and ageing demographic, there is a higher likelihood that become vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. “This case reinforces the need for maintaining social contact within communities of interest as protective factors, particularly as people age and become housebound. Reducing social isolation is a broader community responsibility.”

There is much detail in the review about the discernment process. It notes that Field was given glowing references, which illustrated his ability to deceive. “At that time, the systems in place did not require rigorous communication between people involved in providing psychological support or supervising applicants on placement,” the review says. It also says much about best practice in the recruitment and training of volunteers in a church context.

The review finds that significant improvements have already been made in safeguarding policy and practice since the events of 2012-19 in Stowe and Maids Moreton.

The diocese agrees with the challenge of the three themes identified, and is mindful of the needs of the congregation in Stowe and Maids Moreton as they begin “the long journey of healing”. It acknowledges on its website: “This report will be challenging to read for everyone who knew Peter and everyone who was involved with this case.”

The review and its recommendations have gone to the Archbishops’ Council, and can be downloaded in full from the diocesan website, where a table summarises each recommendation and response. The diocese promises to publish its progress on each of these during 2021. It has also drawn up, as suggested in the review, a “seven-minute briefing” on the issues raised by the case, intended for parish discussions.

Responding to the review, the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, said: “I welcome the report and the recommendations it contains. The events to which it relates have caused immense distress to many. Following the trial and conviction of Ben Field, the diocese was determined to learn what further action was required to ensure that potentially vulnerable adults attending church are adequately protected from harm.

“This review helps to challenge the commonly held view that safeguarding is solely about preventing child abuse, and it is a clarion call for further improvements to our work on LGBTI+ inclusivity, our selection processes for clergy and volunteers, and the training and support the Church provides.”

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