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Dean Percy agrees to leave Christ Church as dispute is ended

04 February 2022

Church Times

THE Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, is to quit as part of a comprehensive agreement with the college that ends a bitter four-year dispute. The settlement includes what is described as “a substantial sum in compensation and the payment of the Dean’s outstanding legal fees”.

On Friday afternoon, a statement appeared on the Christ Church website reporting a successful conclusion to a mediation process with the Dean. It said: “Christ Church can now confirm that the mediation process has been concluded and that a resolution has been reached that is acceptable to all parties. The Dean has agreed to step down, voluntarily, from his role as Dean of Christ Church.”

At the same time, the person who complained that the Dean had assaulted her by stroking her hair in October 2020, sparking a new investigation (News, 20 November 2020), has agreed to settle her claim, the statement says.

The Christ Church statement is notable for how little it says about Dean Percy. By contrast, it expresses gratitude to the complainant for agreeing to work with the college, says that “Christ Church is deeply sorry for the hurt that this individual has suffered”, and undertakes to commission a review of its sexual harassment policies within the next 12 months “to ensure that these procedures fully reflect the experience they [the complainant] endured”.

Dean Percy has always denied the account given of the incident, and a Church of England investigation concluded that the incident was not serious enough to trigger a tribunal under the Clergy Discipline Measure (News, 4 June 2021).

The Christ Church website also carried a statement by the complainant (who, a year ago, wrote to the Church Times, Letters, 5 February 2021). In the new statement, she says: “I have to accept, incredibly reluctantly, that it is my word against his that the incident took place. I am acutely aware that this is a situation faced by many women who bring complaints of a sexual nature. Sadly, the various processes that have followed have not altered this situation.

“However, I want to acknowledge that Christ Church, to their credit, has always supported my right to make this complaint.

“I know what I experienced on that day and I want to ensure that no other student or member of staff has to go through the ordeal that I have.

“I am pleased that the Dean has agreed to step down from his role at Christ Church and, in return, I have agreed to settle my outstanding claims against him.”

It is left to a statement by the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, also issued on Friday, to fill in more details about the agreement with Dean Percy, who has consistently maintained that he would not agree to leave Christ Church unless the college agreed to a thorough review of its governance, which was the original cause of his dispute (News, 5 November 2018).

Dr Croft writes: “The college will seek to appoint an independent chair for a governance review proposed by the Charity Commission. The diocese of Oxford and the Church of England will contribute to that review in due course.

“Both the Dean and the complainant have requested an independent lessons-learned review of the processes followed by the diocese and the Church of England nationally. The Bishop’s Council have agreed to this and we are seeking the support of the Archbishops’ Council for this to be jointly commissioned.”

In contrast with the college, Dr Croft attempts to be even-handed: “The complainant has felt discredited and disbelieved. The Dean has felt hurt and isolated. The complaint and previous disputes have also been painful for Cathedral Chapter, the congregation of the Cathedral and many others. The settlement brings to an end a damaging period in the life of the Cathedral and the College.

“There is a moment and opportunity now for grace and, over time, for a process of reconciliation and healing of relationships.”

Dr Croft says that he has written to Dean Percy “to repeat my offer of conversation and dialogue about his next steps” and concludes: “Martyn continues to be held in respect and affection by many across the diocese of Oxford, the wider Church, and internationally for his gifts as a priest and writer. Many will be grieved by the disputes that have led to his departure.”

Later on Friday, a statement was put out by supporters of Dean Percy confirming that a “substantial sum” had been agreed by the Governing Body on Friday as part of the settlement. Two weeks ago, a figure of £1.5 million was mentioned, though this was denied by the college at the time. The college is thought to have spent almost twice that amount in legal and PR fees during the course of the dispute.

Until now, there appeared no end in sight of the dispute that began when Dean Percy challenged the small group of censors and ex-censors who functioned as an executive committee of the large Governing Body over pay structures, safeguarding, and governance.

Members of the group triggered an internal inquiry, accusing him of “immoral, scandalous, and disgraceful behavi­our” and causing him to be suspended. Because the Dean functions as head of the college, the church authorities were left “monitoring the situation carefully”.

In the event, the independent tribunal presided over by Sir Andrew Smith completely exonerated Dean Percy (News, 23 August 2019). The next move by the Dean’s critics was to raise concerns about the Dean’s handling of historic safeguarding allegations. Again, after a Church of England investigation, Dean Percy was exonerated (News, 8 September 2020).

The fresh allegation in October 2020 triggered another internal review of the Dean’s fitness for office. This has not been able to proceed while the Dean has been signed off sick. Neither this review, nor the Dean’s employment-tribunal case, will now proceed, Dean Percy’s statement confirmed.

The increasingly robust involvement of the Charity Commission is likely to have been a factor in the resolution of the dispute. In November (News, 26 November 2021) it requested virtually all the paperwork relating to the dispute, including copies of the emails about Dean Percy from senior figures in the college, uncovered by Sir Andrew, among them one that read: “Does anyone know any good poisoners?”

The Commission warned that it was investigating whether the money spent on the dispute was a correct use of charitable funds. Other Oxford colleges, set up as educational charities in the same way as Christ Church, have been finding this degree of scrutiny unwelcome.

Dean Percy will leave at the end of April. On Friday he spoke warmly of Christ Church: “Despite the trials and troubles over the last four years, we will miss Christ Church enormously. It is a special place, and our family have been blessed with great support and friendship from students, staff, congregation and colleagues over this time. Those friendships and our gratitude will endure and remain.

“Our own faith in the constancy of God has been sustaining, and evidenced by the goodness, kindness and care we have been shown by many, despite all else. We sincerely wish Christ Church well for the future, and will hope and pray that the governance reforms will be both effective and welcome when they are implemented.”

He went on to praise his wife, Emma, colleagues, alumni, friends, legal advisers, and especially the Unite Faith Workers Branch, adding: “A free, unfettered press has also succeeded in surfacing important truths in the face of legal threats and obstructions.”

He concludes: “Christ Church has been around for nearly 500 years and I sincerely hope it flourishes for many centuries to come. I hope the independent review overseen by the Charity Commission will succeed. I sincerely hope that the same standards in public life we have come to expect of our most cherished national institutions — including integrity, transparency and accountability — will flourish and bear fruit here.”

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