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Oxford diocese probes ‘spiritual abuse’ over two decades

14 April 2022

St Margaret’s, Tyler’s Green

The Revd Michael Hall, who died in June 2021

The Revd Michael Hall, who died in June 2021

THE diocese of Oxford has commissioned an independent lessons-learned review of allegations of spiritual abuse connected with St Margaret’s, Tyler’s Green, in High Wycombe, between 1981 and 2000. Its then incumbent, the Revd Michael Hall, was said to “rule congregants with a rod of iron and a flaming temper”.

Hall died in June 2021. The diocesan safeguarding team has been investigating him since January 2020, when a former member of the congregation took their own life. That prompted Hall’s successor, the Revd Mike Bisset, to raise serious concerns about Hall’s behaviour towards other members of the congregation, too.

The allegations relate to spiritual abuse, nakedness, and sexual activity with some adult members of the congregation. The abuse is said to have taken place at St Margaret’s, in the parish rooms, and also in people’s homes, where, according to survivor accounts, it was witnessed by children and young people.

Witness statements and a comprehensive file review of archived documents indicate “belligerent and unreasonable” behaviour towards many individuals, including members of the parish council and the residents’ association.

The review team believe that the behaviour would be described today as spiritual abuse. This is now understood to include coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals through the misuse of religious texts and scripture, and providing a “divine” rationale for behaviour.

The diocese has also looked into a further claim of financial abuse involving “a significant sum of money”.

Hall was ordained deacon in 1969, and served his title at St Margaret’s, Aspley, in Southwell diocese. He then became incumbent of St John the Divine, Bulwell. He moved to Tyler’s Green in 1981, serving as Priest-in-Charge and then Vicar from 1990. He retired on 13 April 2000.

A statement from the safeguarding team said: “We want to properly understand the circumstances behind what happened and the actions of senior clergy at the time, and we want to listen to people’s experiences of Michael Hall.” It has invited anyone who came into contact with him, including their partners and children, to come forward with information.

The Bishop of Buckingham, Dr Alan Wilson, has met those who have come forward so far, and has, the diocese says, apologised to each on behalf of the Church.

Dr Wilson said: “I have heard stories that books weren’t allowed in the church: it was only the word of Michael Hall that carried weight. Anyone who didn’t fit in was apparently bullied and cajoled by him until they did, or they walked away.

“Sexualised behaviour between some members of the congregation and Hall appears to have been witnessed by children and young people, and then spiritualised by him as acceptable.

“The people I spoke to describe feelings of being trapped, and experiencing distorted family lives that persist to this day. I am in no doubt that what happened was wrong, and I think that there can be no excuse for Hall’s actions. I am truly sorry for what happened here in Tyler’s Green, and encourage anyone with further information to come forward.”

The diocese of Southwell & Nottingham has also confirmed its support for the investigation and review. A statement said: “We deplore all forms of abuse and would urge anyone who has information relating to Revd Michael Hall to assist the Diocese of Oxford in this process.”

Hall’s family have been offered pastoral support. The review is ongoing, and a confidential Safe Spaces helpline is being set up for anyone wishing to come forward with further information. They are assured that anything that they disclose will be treated “with the utmost care and compassion”.

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