IN AN anonymised judgment, the Consistory Court of the diocese of Oxford has granted a faculty permitting the PCC to remove a plaque commemorating a former churchwarden — who, it was recently discovered, had been convicted of child sexual abuse decades before — in an unnamed Grade II* listed medieval church.
The plaque had been installed without a faculty in the middle of an interior windowsill, below a prominent four-light tracery window in the south wall of the nave. It recorded that the window had been restored in memory of a local farmer who died in his late eighties, in the first decade of the current millennium. He had lived and farmed in the parish all his life, and had served as churchwarden for more than 60 years.
When he died, his family, who had paid for the repair of the window, asked whether they could put up the commemorative plaque. They were told categorically that a fixed plaque was not possible, as a faculty would be needed. It was suggested to the family that they could have some sort of commemorative plaque which could be put on a moveable stand. Without the agreement or knowledge of either the PCC or the then incumbent, however, the present slate plaque had been cemented on to the windowsill and presented as a fait accompli.
In March 2023, the Archdeacon of Dorchester, in Oxford diocese, who had recently chaired a safeguarding “Professionals Meeting”, wrote to the PCC alerting them to the fact that it had been brought to both his attention, and to the attention of the safeguarding team, that one of the church windows was dedicated in memory of a churchwarden who, as reported in a local daily newspaper, had been convicted of child sexual abuse in the 1950s.
The Archdeacon asked the PCC to consider applying for a faculty to remove the plaque. He strongly recommended that the PCC should first approach any local family members before applying for a faculty, which would be required even if the plaque had been installed without a faculty.
The PCC said that it had been “a very sensitive issue to deal with”. The deceased’s family had been informed of the request to apply for the faculty to remove the plaque. Both of the deceased’s two children said that they were unaware of the safeguarding situation with their father, and they were very upset. His daughter said that she did not want the plaque back, and asked that it should be disposed of. The PCC did not know the son’s feelings on what he wanted to happen.
The petition for a faculty was presented on 31 July, and it recorded that the request for a faculty had come from the diocese. The Chancellor, the Worshipful David Hodge KC, was satisfied that the owners of the plaque, the children of the deceased, had not withheld their consent to the faculty.
The Chancellor was supplied with a copy of the newspaper report, dating from the mid-1950s. It recorded that a named local famer, aged 36, was put on probation for three years after pleading guilty to four charges of indecently assaulting boys aged 12. A condition of the probation order was that he should undergo psychiatric treatment.
The newspaper recorded that small boys in the village had been in the habit of going to the farm, which was fairly centrally located, to give help, and that it was on such visits that the four incidents took place.
Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, some old convictions and cautions were deemed to be spent after a period of time, which varies according to the nature of the offence. Hence, a sentence of three years’ probation from the mid-1950s would normally have become spent many decades ago. For the purposes of working with children or vulnerable adults, however, no offence was considered spent.
It was the Church of England’s policy that anyone who put themselves forward for positions in the Church which involved, or could involve, working with children or vulnerable adults, and who had received a positive, blemished, or unclear DBS check should undergo a risk assessment from a suitably qualified person. The confidential declaration form to be completed by all those working with children or vulnerable people expressly required all spent convictions to be disclosed. Since, according to the plaque, the deceased had served as churchwarden for 63 years, his initial appointment as churchwarden would presumably have pre-dated the need for any checks.
The Chancellor said that, having read the contemporary newspaper report of the hearing, presumably at Quarter Sessions, almost 70 years ago, he felt some “disquiet” at the basis for the faculty petition. By pleading guilty to all four charges against him, the deceased had acknowledged his guilt. Even at the time of his conviction, the deceased continued to be held in high regard by the village community. He presumably served out his sentence of three years’ probation satisfactorily, and there was no evidence that he ever fell foul of the law, or engaged in any further incidents of sexual abuse or misconduct.
From the chronology, he must already have been a churchwarden at the time of his conviction and sentence, and he continued to serve as churchwarden for many decades thereafter.
The Chancellor observed that, many times in church, the deceased must have been invited to repent of his sins; to have responded by saying the general confession; and to have heard the priest pronounce absolution for his sins. From the attitude of his fellow parishioners, there was every reason to think that the deceased felt and showed true repentance, change of heart, and change of behaviour. “Whilst the Church rightly takes sin seriously, and sexual offences against children are amongst the most heinous of sins”, nobody was beyond redemption, the Chancellor said.
Since members of the PCC were unanimous in their agreement that the right thing to do was to remove the plaque, the faculty was granted. A faculty was permissive, and did not have to be implemented, and certainly not at once. It was for the PCC to decide whether, and when, to implement the faculty, in the light of the Chancellor’s observations. A period of 12 months was allowed for the removal of the plaque. If the plaque was removed, it was a condition of the faculty that it should be offered to the deceased’s children before it was disposed of by the parish.
To protect the right to respect for the private and family life of anyone who might be affected by the Chancellor’s judgment, it was handed down in anonymised form so that the names of those who featured in it, the name and location of the parish, and any details that might lead to their being identified were omitted.