THE case of an Essex priest deceived by a parishioner is an example of a case so complex that it cannot properly be investigated under the current Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) system, a tribunal has said. The parishioner falsely claimed to be terminally ill, and then alleged that the priest had impregnated her.
In a 40-page ruling, released this week, the tribunal describes the case as “deeply disturbing”. The priest, the Revd William Bulloch, Vicar of St James’s, Leigh-on-Sea, was subject to “egregious” manipulation, followed by an inadequate investigation of complaints brought against him.
The complaint was brought under the CDM by the Archdeacon of Southend, the Ven. Michael Lodge, in November 2017. His case rested almost exclusively upon recordings made by the woman who made the complaint.
Mr Bulloch, who is married, was accused of having had a sexual relationship with a woman, “AB”, to whom he had given pastoral support; of failing to seek the advice of the diocese after later refusing to provide her with this support; and of subsequently using “foul and obscene language” in conversations with her. Mr Bulloch admitted the latter two charges but denied the first.
In November 2016, AB told Mr Bulloch that she was dying. This claim was backed up by emails from “Julian” — totalling around 130 over the next two months — which purported to come from a medical professional with access to AB’s medical records. “Julian” said that it was AB’s “last dying wish” to be part of a family, and asked whether she could stay with Mr Bulloch’s family — a request to which he eventually acceded.
He and his wife provided care for her, and gave her their daughter’s wheelchair, believing that she was unable to walk. AB had an oxygen tank and wore patches that she said were morphine.
Mr Bulloch told the tribunal that he had believed “Julian” to be a psychiatrist responsible for the care of AB. After AB returned to live at her home, Mr Bulloch visited her daily. It was here, she alleged, that sexual intercourse took place.
In January 2017 “Julian” and AB asked Mr Bulloch to speak to her seven-year-old daughter about her imminent death. Later that month, Mr Bulloch’s wife and daughter reported having seen AB walking in the hospital. After he confronted her about this, he received an email from “Dr Khokhar” providing a medical explanation for this, and confirming that AB was, indeed, terminally ill.
Mr Bulloch emailed the real Dr Khokhar, a consultant cardiologist at Southend Hospital, who told him that he had not sent the email. It prompted Mr Bulloch to tell AB that he could no longer see her or be in contact with her.
In her evidence, Mrs Bulloch said that, on arrival at AB’s home — where they had gone to pick up their daughter’s wheelchair — AB told Mr Bulloch that she would tell people that they had had sex if he did not continue to be her priest. AB then sent a number of emails in February 2017 repeating this threat and claiming to be pregnant.
Mr Bulloch told the tribunal that AB then waged a campaign against him involving crude and abusive emails. She left flowers at his house for “the baby”; and brought an urn with his name on it to the church. Mr Bulloch’s wife told the tribunal that, earlier in their contact with her, the gifts AB gave to them were “uncomfortable”. They had included a whole pig’s head.
Mr Bulloch admitted that he had not always responded in a manner becoming to his office, and blamed himself for “not being more discerning and questioning of the whole situation earlier”. But he also spoke of his fears that one day one of his own children might find herself similarly alone.
Archdeacon Lodge was first aware of the allegation of sexual misconduct through a concern raised by a local Baptist minister, the Revd Steve Tinning, to whom AB had disclosed that she had had sexual intercourse with a married Anglican priest, resulting in a pregnancy. She had also made a disclosure to another Anglican priest, the Revd James McCluskey, then Vicar of St Luke’s, Prittlewell. She did not name Mr Bulloch to the Archdeacon until September 2017.
Between February of that year and this date she made a number of recordings of conversations between herself and Mr Bulloch, which, she and the Archdeacon alleged, proved that a sexual relationship had taken place.
By a majority, the tribunal ruled that the Archdeacon had not proved that a sexual relationship took place (two of the five members dissented). The panel was “troubled” by the timing of the recordings, made before Mr Bulloch knew that AB had begun a process of disclosure against him.
While accepting that some of Mr Bulloch’s responses were “ambiguous”, it noted that, by the time they were made, he had known that he had been duped, having gone “to great lengths to minister to her, imposing great burdens on himself and his family”. His “desperation and exasperation” could be attributed to this.
Allegations of a sexual relationship were “not established by the evidence”, and a pregnancy was not proved.
The tribunal panel found unanimously that there was “overwhelming” evidence that AB was the author of the “Julian” and “Dr Khokhar” emails. It also ruled that she had never been on a palliative-care pathway, and could walk. Mr Bulloch’s legal team produced a video taken from the Instagram account that showed AB on a bouncy castle. The tribunal found that AB’s “dishonesty and manipulation” of Mr Bulloch and his family was “egregious” and her request that he tell her seven-year-old daughter that she was dying was “particularly chilling”.
Mr Bulloch had “acted extremely naïvely in our judgement and without an appropriate sense of boundaries, as he now accepts”. His “sense of professional pride” had been “flattered” by the “Julian” emails, which “played to his sense of being an indispensable priest coping with every situation thrown at him”.
The decision raises a number of concerns about the handling of the case. The tribunal expressed regret that it had not heard from either Mr McCluskey or Mr Tinning. Mr McCluskey told Archdeacon Lodge that AB had previously made “claims of pregnancy which were not substantiated”. He had also seen her walking, causing him to doubt that she was unable to do so, and had commented that she had a “manipulative streak”. Mr Tinning’s statement recorded doubts about whether AB had been pregnant — he noted that in a photograph of AB with a baby she claimed had been the result of the relationship, the date stamp did not match her timeline.
The tribunal noted that no medical records of AB had been provided, including confirmation of whether or not she was on a palliative-care pathway or had undergone a termination.
The Designated Officer, Adrian Isles — appointed by the Archbishops’ Council to investigate CDM complaints — had initially planned to proceed at the tribunal without calling AB as a witness. The tribunal’s decision observes: “If those who prosecute a claim like this cannot put forward their principal witness as truthful on an important matter, great caution must be taken before embarking upon such a complaint based on what that witness says about other matters.”
While emphasising that it does not wish to criticise the Designated Officer, the Archdeacon (the Complainant), or Diocesan Safeguarding Officer, the tribunal notes: “The problem in a case such as this is that no one is appointed to investigate the case in a professional manner.” These cases required “much more investigative work before being prosecuted”.
Mr Bulloch’s team argued that there had been “inadequate, if any, investigation into the credibility of AB by the Complainant”, despite warnings from two ordained ministers.
The hearing took place last October, and a decision was reached on 30 December. A penalty for the admission of the other two allegations is being considered. The tribunal has made an order that the name of the complainant and her family should not be made public.
A spokesperson for the diocese of Chelmsford said on Wednesday: “This has been a complex and distressing case. The diocese of Chelmsford takes all disciplinary issues very seriously, and is following House of Bishops policy and practice guidance. We ask for prayers for all those affected by this case.”
An ecclesiastical lawyer, who asked not to be named, said on Wednesday that the case “identifies that a root-and-branch reform of the system is needed. . . The idea of one person — the Designated Officer — being tasked with sifting through every complaint, investigating the allegations, interviewing witnesses, deciding on disclosure, interviewing the Respondent, and then presenting the case to a tribunal is so outdated as to be laughable in an organisation as massive as the Church of England.
“The fact that, for example, notes of interviews with witnesses (including the Respondent) are routinely not disclosed to the Respondent’s legal advisers as being subject to ‘legal privilege’ is just one example of how the system is not fit for purpose.”
The Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, is currently chairing a working group investigating CDM. The Sheldon Hub, which has commissioned independent research into it, has warned of the long-term effects on clergy subject to complaints (News, 1 November 2019; Features, 19 October 2018).