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Priest wins appeal against removal from office

13 April 2021

St James the Great, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

St James the Great, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

THE Revd William Bulloch can stay in his Essex parish, after the Court of Arches overruled an earlier judgment that he must move after serious lapses in the pastoral care of a woman who accused him of making her pregnant.

The court’s ruling came despite a submission from the Acting Diocesan Bishop which argued that the original penalty of removal from office should stand.

In January of last year, Mr Bulloch, Vicar of St James’s, Leigh-on-Sea, in Chelmsford diocese, was cleared of having an affair with “AB” (News, 24 January 2020). In a complaint brought by the Archdeacon of Southend, the Ven. Michael Lodge, AB had said that she had been made pregnant and had subsequently had an abortion.

The original tribunal concluded that the pregnancy was part of a wider “egregious” deception. AB, having been referred to Mr Bulloch for pastoral counselling, convinced him and his wife that she was suffering from a terminal illness.

They took her into their home for a period, as part of a response to her “dying wish”, and lent her their daughter’s wheelchair. At AB’s request, Mr Bulloch told AB’s seven-year-old daughter of her mother’s imminent death. Mrs Bulloch then spotted AB walking normally at the local hospital. Letters explaining her recovery were found to have been forged. The accusation that Fr Bulloch had made her pregnant followed, the tribunal heard, and led to a series of confrontations, including in church, some of which AB recorded.

On 6 April last year (News, 1 May 2020), the tribunal judged that the misconduct that Mr Bulloch had admitted — that he had “failed to seek assistance or advice from the diocesan safeguarding team or senior diocesan clergy as to how suitable help or support could be provided for [AB] and/or as to how he should respond to her”, and that he had used “foul and obscene language” in conversations with her after the deception was discovered — was sufficiently serious to warrant removal from office, since it had “fundamentally undermined his work as a priest in this parish”.

The original judgment contained complaints about flaws in the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM) process, not least significant gaps in the evidence assembled by the then Designated Officer (DO). None the less, the Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Morag Ellis QC, made it clear that its purpose was not to retry the case but to examine the appropriateness of the penalties on the evidence given.

Mr Bulloch’s counsel, Justin Gau, told the court that Mr Bulloch accepted two of the penalties imposed last April: attendance at a safeguarding course and a formal rebuke. In the lunch break during the appeal hearing, he also agreed to a third: participation in an anger-management course.

This left the penalty of removal from office. Mr Gau argued that Mr Bulloch had had no notice of the possibility of this penalty — based on a submission by the then DO that it was “impossible for the Respondent to continue with a priestly ministry in this parish” — and had therefore not had the opportunity to assemble evidence to the contrary.

The court agreed, and the Dean directed that new evidence could be heard on this point. She asked for the opinion of the Acting Diocesan Bishop, the Area Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd Peter Hill, directing him to consult the Bishop of Richborough, the Rt Revd Norman Banks, since St James’s is a Society parish under his alternative episcopal oversight.

Bishop Hill listed four concerns: the effect on the mental health of AB, “who still lives in close proximity to the parish”; the impossibility of recovering priestly credibility, outside a “very small group of empathetic and loyal church members”; the consequent disabling of the mission of the Church in the parish; and the reputational damage and risk to the Church, both locally and nationally. Consequently, he wrote: “Removal from Office is an appropriate penalty, and is neither disproportionate nor excessive.”

Bishop Hill’s letter ends: “I wish to acknowledge that the Bishop of Richborough would offer a different view to my conclusion.”

Bishop Banks wrote independently to the court with a contrary view, pointing out that Bishop Hill had acknowledged “that he has not met the priest or visited the parish while the Bishop of Bradwell, as far as I know, has made no contact either over the past three years”.

Bishop Banks argued that “support for Father Bill by the churchwardens and the congregation is undiminished. Not only evidenced by their letters of support but by the fact that the worshipping numbers have remained steady over the past three years.”

There was no evidence to support the claim that Mr Bulloch was alienated from the local community, he said. “My observation is that after a three-year suspension, the local community would find it inexplicable and unfair for him to be removed from office at this late stage, especially since he was not found guilty of the most serious allegation.”

The Court of Arches considered 35 letters from lay people, including the two churchwardens and the PCC secretary, who wrote: “There is not one person that is active within the church community that I can think of that is against his return.” Additional letters from clergy, some of whom have ministered in the parish during the period of suspension, were said to be “unanimously of the opinion that his credibility as a minister remains”.

The court finds “the penalty of removal to have been excessive on the basis of the lack of evidential basis for the Tribunal’s finding that his work as a priest in the parish had been ‘fundamentally undermined’ by his misconduct”. In consequence, the court states, “the penalty of removal from office is set aside.”

The court acknowledged the challenged that remained, however, and the need for serious retraining and support. It therefore added to the injunctions to take safeguarding and anger-management courses within the next six months two further injunctions: to undertake over the next two years “such training in appropriate working, supervision and external relationships as the Bishop of Chelmsford shall, in her absolute discretion, direct”; and full participation for the remainder of the incumbency in the diocesan scheme of Ministerial Development Review, again under the direction of the Bishop of Chelmsford.

In addition, the formal rebuke was confirmed.

The court noted its concern at the “apparent lack of remorse and repentance” on Mr Bulloch’s part. It concluded that these were not grounds to refuse the appeal. It continued: “For everyone’s sakes, however, we want to stress how important it is for the Appellant to face his misconduct and its consequences and fully embrace the opportunities for improvement which are offered by the injunctions.

“We strongly feel that it is essential for the Appellant to learn and reflect deeply on the shared nature of ministry in the understanding of the Church of England: shared with the Diocesan Bishop as well as with the Provincial Episcopal Visitor and shared with other ordained and lay ministers both within the parish and the diocese.”

The court concludes: “Noting the willingness of the Bishop of Richborough to assist in the Appellant’s return to ministry, we are confident that the Bishop of Chelmsford will liaise appropriately with him to the better supporting of the Appellant.

“It is fundamentally important for the Appellant’s future ministry that he fully complies with these injunctions. Failure to do so would constitute further misconduct under the Measure.”

The full judgment can be found here.

Petition. On Tuesday, after the publication of the judgment, a petition was launched by Andrew Graystone, an advocate for abuse survivors, and Jo Kind of the Minister And Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors network. They list gaps in the evidence presented to the original tribunal, particularly relating to AB’s medical records, and urge the new Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, to withhold Mr Bulloch’s Permission to Officiate until this evidence is fully considered.

They describe the outcome of the appeal as an “outrage. . . The maltreatment of AB within the process has been the worst that we have ever seen,” and speak of “the extreme and gross injustice to which she has been subjected at the hands of the Church”.

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