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Southwark priest earns rebuke from tribunal for ‘liking’ images of naked man on Twitter

18 February 2022

Actions led to a ‘real and substantial risk’ of causing offence to others

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THE Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal for Southwark diocese found the Revd Michael Edward Todd to be guilty of conduct unbecoming a clerk in Holy Orders when he used his Twitter account, on which he identified himself as an Anglican priest, to “like” four images of a naked man, thereby taking the risk of allowing them to be seen by his Twitter followers, who might find the images offensive.

Fr Todd was followed on Twitter by the diocese of Southwark, which routinely followed priests, parishes, and prominent lay people. In July 2019, the then director of press and communications, and the Bishop’s press officer for Southwark diocese, Canon Wendy Robins, was checking the Twitter timeline of the diocese. That showed the tweets of those whom the diocese followed, and also their retweets and likes. She noted that between 1 May and 3 July Fr Todd had “liked” four images of a naked male, who was identified only as AR.

Canon Robins showed the images to the then Archdeacon of Southwark, who made a complaint under section 8(1)(d) of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 that Fr Todd’s conduct was unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders. The complaint was heard by the Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal for the diocese of Southwark, which consisted of a panel of five members. Fr Todd served an answer to the complaint in the appropriate format, but he did not attend the hearing, and the tribunal proceedings took place in his absence.

The Rt Revd Jane Steen, now Bishop of Lynn, who was the Archdeacon of Southwark when the complaint was made, and Canon Robins gave evidence before the tribunal. It became clear that AR was a friend of Fr Todd who lived some distance away, and whom Fr Todd follows on Twitter.

The tribunal concluded that the images, which showed nudity, with hashtags describing and highlighting the genitalia, were “highly likely to be considered sexually explicit by those who viewed them, and highly likely to give rise to the risk that they would cause offence to those who came upon them inadvertently”. Therefore the tweets came within the terms set out in the complaint.

In the documents before the tribunal, Fr Todd had disputed that the images were sexually explicit, and asserted that they were photographs which fell within the description of naturism. The tribunal rejected that assertion, and said that these were not naturist photographs. The emphasis on the genitalia suggested otherwise.

The gender of the person depicted did not matter, the tribunal said. Retweeting, liking, or any interaction with any sexually explicit images, by someone clearly identifying themselves as a priest, would give rise to the same concerns.

The tribunal was satisfied that Fr Todd “liked” the photographs, but it did not find that his action was designed to cause any particular offence, or that he intended anyone in particular to see it, or gave any thought to who might see it. The tribunal also took into account that the photographs were “liked” rather than replied to with commentary, or retweeted. A retweet might indicate a higher level of desire to share a tweet.

The consequence of Fr Todd’s liking the images was that the substantial number of those who followed him would be exposed to those images without any action being required on their part. That gave rise to a real and substantial risk that many of them might be offended and upset by the images, the tribunal said. The fact that Fr Todd took that risk amounted, in the tribunal’s judgment, to misconduct, in that it was a priest, who was describing himself as such on his Twitter account, who was exposing others to images that they might find offensive.

The tribunal took into account that the allegation related to four photographs in a relatively short time, and that there was no evidence that there had been any repetition since the allegation was made. The tribunal therefore concluded that it was “negligent as opposed to intentional misconduct, an act of folly” on Fr Todd’s part. His actions amounted to misconduct, because his risk-taking did not demonstrate his compliance with his obligation “as a priest to frame his life as a wholesome example to others”.

Since the misconduct was reckless or negligent rather than deliberate, and in the absence of any repetition, it was unnecessary to impose a mandatory injunction requiring Fr Todd to undertake additional training, the tribunal decided. A rebuke was imposed as the appropriate penalty.

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