THE ordeal began at 2.39 p.m. on 13 April 2019. In a way that will be recognised by many contributors to the Sheldon Hub, the online support network for accused priests and their families, Canon Paul Overend was summoned to what he thought was a casual meeting. It was with one of the suffragan bishops in the Lincoln diocese, the Bishop of Grantham, Dr Nicholas Chamberlain.
With no warning, and no invitation to be accompanied, he was confronted by the Bishop and the lay safeguarding chair, and told that he had been accused of “a crime of a serious nature”. He was being asked to step aside from his post as Canon Chancellor of the cathedral, where he had been appointed a year earlier, describing it as his “dream job”. The meeting lasted five minutes.
When he arrived home, he collapsed at the feet of his wife, Sue. Frantic efforts to find any pastoral support that day ended when, finally, the Bishop’s chaplain visited. He was accompanied by the diocesan safeguarding officer. Rumours abounded, and at one point a neighbour was asked by a reporter: “What’s it like living next to a paedophile?”
Paradoxically, had Canon Overend refused to step aside and had, instead, been suspended, canon law would have ensured that he was given a detailed reason. As it was, the couple lived for ten weeks without any further information about the nature of the crime of which Canon Overend had been accused. It was during this time that their physical and mental health suffered, as well as their marriage.
It was only on 24 June that the police informed him that it related to an alleged incident in 1997, when he was a university chaplain in Cardiff. A student had accused him of grabbing and kissing her against her will.
In the mean time, the Dean of Lincoln, the Very Revd Christine Wilson; the Chapter Clerk, William Harrison; and the diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd Christopher Lowson, had all been suspended over what was eventually revealed as errors in handling the accusation. It was described later by a safeguarding official as the “nuclear option”. They have since been reinstated, though only after long delays (News, 20 March 2020; 5 February).
By then, Mrs Overend had had a breakdown — “I went into the cathedral during a service and screamed my head off” — and was staying with family elsewhere. When, on 5 July, the diocesan safeguarding adviser told Canon Overend that the police wanted to interview him, he phoned his wife to say that he was going to take his own life. “I wasn’t there — I was in a different county, with no car, and had somehow to rally support for him.”
At one stage, she, too, was deemed a suicide risk, and was admitted to the Maytree Respite Centre, in London. She continues to receive support from a therapist.
As is now customary, once the police were involved, the church authorities halted their investigation. The main alteration during this period came in October 2019, when Canon Overend was formally charged. His position in the Church changed from having “stepped back” to being suspended. This meant that every three months he received a letter from the acting diocesan Bishop, the Rt Revd David Court, saying: “I am satisfied that you pose a risk of significant harm,” and confirming the suspension. Each letter ended: “My prayers are with you.”
“I wrote and told him: ‘We don't want your prayers,’” Mrs Overend says. From day one, Canon Overend was not allowed into the cathedral, and could enter a church only on the say-so of the diocesan safeguarding adviser. As a result, he has not exercised his priesthood for the past two years, and has been “left questioning everything”, his wife says.
The ordeal might have been thought to be over on 3 December last year, when a jury took less than two hours to conclude that Canon Overend was innocent. But at that point the church investigation reawakened, and took another six months to conclude that there was no case to answer.
“We have always said that allegations need to be properly investigated in a way that is fair, and equitable, by listening to all sides,” Mrs Overend says. “But, if you call the accused person in a CDM ‘the respondent’, they ought at the very least have the right to respond.” She believes that the Designated Officer (the senior lawyer who collates the evidence during the CDM process) acted efficiently. But she is critical of what she calls “the useless bishop phase”, which dragged the process out unnecessarily.
Mrs Overend says that, throughout the two-year period, she must have written scores of letters attempting to find out what was going on. Most of the time, she says, she felt that she was treated as “an inconvenience”. During the wait for the trial, she felt that the Church was saying “It’s nothing to do with us now: go away.”
Canon Overend was assigned a retired bishop for pastoral support. Most of their support, though, came from outside the church hierarchy. Mrs Overend praises Sheldon, and a retired barrister “who offered us more support than the whole of the C of E”. She is also grateful to the Bishop at Lambeth, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, who responded when, out of desperation, she wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Thornton chairs the working group that is looking for a replacement for the CDM (News, 11 December 2020).
Mrs Overend has filed her own 36-page complaint under the CDM process. It was originally submitted in January 2020 — a few days before the archdeacon in charge of safeguarding in the diocese told the BBC that “our safeguarding department is the envy of the Church of England.” She was told that her complaint could not be entertained while her husband was still being investigated. She understands that her complaint is now active, and has heard that other complaints are in the offing. One of her accusations is that the diocese not only failed to follow the Church’s guidelines: it didn’t even know that they existed.
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Cross to bear: Sue Overend, an artist, was able to produce only one artwork during the period of her husband’s suspension: Out of the Depths Do I Cry. She describes its generation thus: “I ran upstairs to my art room and picked up a huge canvas I’d set aside and never used (because it had a hole in it) and some black and red paint.
“These were the only colours that called to me: the black, because of the darkness and despair I was in; the red, because of the anger surging through my body.
“No brushes. No tools. I just used my hands to slap on the paint and scratch it with my nails in anger. It felt cathartic and releasing. I sobbed my heart out as I did this.
“The screaming mouth is not as big as it would be depicted in real life, because I was only screaming inwardly at that point. I had never in my life screamed before and it felt alien to me. No one was telling us anything and we felt deserted, humiliated, and exiled. We had no rights. We had no voice. We had no say.
“The eyes are not only crying out in pain, but are crying blood, because I had burst the blood vessels in my own eyes through not being able to outwardly express my anger, and I looked a mess.
“The cross only then came to mind. I picked up a Bible (one of many we had in the house) and I ripped it to pieces. . . I sat with the pieces all around me for a while and then I quietly picked some of them up, mainly passages from the psalmody, and I glued them in the shape of a cross over the screaming face. The pain flowed out of me and on to the canvas.”