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Dean of Christ Church faces new attempt to remove him from office

13 January 2021

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THE Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, is to face another internal tribunal.

Dean Percy is both Dean of the cathedral and Master of the college. The Governing Body of the college decided on Monday to initiate a tribunal to decide whether the Dean should be removed from office after a complaint was made about an incident in the cathedral in October (News, 20 November 2020).

The alleged incident has been described as harassment, and the college has spoken of its serious nature. For the tribunal to be set up, both the cathedral chapter and the Governing Body had to judge the complaint to be “supported by sufficient evidence which could, if proved, constitute good cause for the removal of the Dean from office”. This they have both done, after an investigation by an independent investigator, Kate Wood. The college will now seek an independent senior lawyer to chair the tribunal.

The college authorities have spent a figure widely reported to be more than £2 million over the past three years attempting to remove Dean Percy, after a dispute over governance and salaries. An earlier tribunal, conducted by a senior judge, Sir Andrew Smith, exonerated him of every one of the 27 charges of improper conduct made against him (News, 23 August 2019). An appendix to Sir Andrew’s report, said to contain criticism of the Dean’s accusers, has not been made public.

Dean Percy is still awaiting an employment tribunal, expected in the autumn, to claim back the legal expenses, said to be more than £400,000, used to defend himself against the earlier charges; most of the expenses he owes. He has to fund his own defence once again for this second tribunal.

Under the college statues, the cathedral Chapter can nominate one or more of its members to the tribunal. The Governing Body can then nominate a matching number. For the first tribunal, the Chapter nominated no one; so Sir Andrew judged the evidence alone. On Wednesday, the college treasurer, James Lawrie, confirmed that both the Chapter and the Governing Body would be represented on the tribunal. The conduct of the tribunal is not set out in the statutes, but Mr Lawrie said that its decision, which is simply whether to recommend the removal of the Dean from office, will be by a simple majority, meaning that the independent chair can be outvoted.

What the statutes do say is that, when nominating people to the tribunal, both the Chapter and the college must exclude “any person who has been involved in or associated with the making of the complaint or any part of it, or who has been involved in any preliminary hearing or investigation”. Although the authorities insist that the new complaint is unrelated to earlier disputes, it will be hard to find anyone neutral in either the Chapter or the college.

As well as the internal tribunal, the complaint triggered a church investigation under the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM). The cathedral safeguarding officer brought the complaint, backed up by Ms Wood’s report. Because the complaint mentioned sexual harassment, the National Safeguarding Team (NST) has set up a core group.

Again, this is the second time Dean Percy has been investigated by the NST. He was exonerated last September after an earlier complaint made by the college authorities (News, 11 September 2020).

The Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, judged that the CDM process should go ahead. He then recused himself, as have the diocesan registrars, delegating the matter to the Bishop of Birmingham, who is using an ecclesiastical lawyer from the Province of York.

If the bishop in charge considers that the complaint has substance, he can initiate a formal investigation, which would involve another collection of evidence and statements, to be heard in a formal tribunal.

This is some way down the line, however. At present, Dean Percy is still to respond to the complaint in writing. The Dean voluntarily stepped back from his duties in November, and was shortly afterwards signed off work. He remains unwell, and is therefore unable to instruct a lawyer.

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