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Vicar’s spiritual abuse went on for decades despite complaints to his bishop, review finds

21 July 2023

Alamy

St Margaret’s, Tylers Green

St Margaret’s, Tylers Green

SPIRITUAL abuse was able to go unchecked in a parish in the diocese of Oxford for almost 20 years, owing to inaction at the parish and diocesan level, a lessons-learnt review has concluded.

The report, published on Friday, examines how the Revd Michael Hall, Vicar of St Margaret’s, Tylers Green, in Buckinghamshire, from 1981 to 2000, was able to abuse members of the congregation physically and emotionally without official censure.

An investigation began in 2020, after a former member of the congregation took his own life, but it did not conclude until after Hall’s death, at the age of 88, in June 2021 (News, 14 April 2022).

Some witnesses described his ministry as akin to a cult, ruled by Hall’s word. Parishioners were described as frightened to leave because Hall told them that, if they did, they would face litigation, ostracism, and damnation.

“He made parishioners want to please him and to fear his rejection. In this way, Reverend Hall groomed parishioners and made them vulnerable through spiritual abuse,” the reviewers, Elaine and Patrick Hopkinson, write.

Thirteen written complaints to the diocese, sent to the then Bishop of Buckingham, and two references to verbal complaints, were obtained by the reviewers; but no investigation ensued. In many instances, there is no record of replies having been made to the letters.

The report says that, when responses were made, complainants were told by the then Bishops of Buckingham and Oxford that there was little that the diocese could do, unless the complainants were willing to go public.

Responding to the report, Lord Harries, who was Bishop of Oxford during the period that Hall was working in the diocese, said: “There were to my knowledge no official complaints. People might whisper and speak anonymously, but they were too intimidated to go public.”

The review does not name specific bishops, but there were were three Bishops of Buckingham during Hall’s time in Tylers Green: the Rt Revd Simon Burrows (1974-94); the Rt Revd Colin Bennetts (1994-98); and the Rt Revd Mike Hill (1998-2003).

According to Lord Harries, other factors that “made it impossible to lance the boil of this terrible situation” were Hall’s control over the parochial church council, and the fact that he “made it clear he would institute proceedings against anyone he thought slandered or libelled him. Together with this was the simmering violence that people sometimes sensed in his personality, which must have been frightening.”

The review suggests that, “when parishioners complained to the bishops in confidence this could have led to a meeting or conversation with them, offering support and exploring their fears and what might be done to protect them. Fear of Reverend Hall should have been an indicator that something was seriously wrong.”

The report details how Hall was able to protect himself from complaints at the parish level by manipulating the PCC and churchwardens, ensuring that positions were filled by those who would support him and endorse his behaviour.

In one instance, the churchwardens wrote to unhappy parishioners telling them to be reconciled with Hall, quoting Hebrews 13.1: “Obey your leaders and submit to them.”

The lessons-learnt review describes an incident in which Hall blamed the parents of a seriously ill child when his prayers for the child did not improve their condition. Complaints were made to the then Area Bishop of Buckingham that Hall had told a parent that it was evil to put flowers on her child’s grave, and had told another bereaved parent that it was evil to watch a video of her child.

The reviewers found no evidence that this particular complaint was investigated, or even received a reply.

Complaints about Hall’s inappropriate sexual behaviour also went unheeded, including allegations that Hall had encouraged men to touch women sexually as they arrived at a party, and that he had engaged in naked saunas and massages with members of the congregation, which, he claimed, was part of a “healing ministry”.

The man who took his life in 2020 had lived with Hall for a period of time, after the latter had alienated the man from his parents. A few days before his death, he told another member of the clergy that he was “suffering from depression as a result of not being able to move on from the trauma caused by Reverend Hall”.

It was this that prompted an investigation into Hall’s behaviour during his incumbency.

The review reveals that complaints about Hall were made throughout his period in the diocese and afterwards. Some accused of him being “physically, mentally and spiritually threatening”; other parishioners reported suffering trauma caused by Hall.

The first of the missed opportunities identified in the report relates to concerns expressed in a reference by Hall’s previous bishop when he applied for the position at St Margaret’s, but which were not followed up.

The review notes “similarities” in this respect to the case of Ben Field, a former deputy churchwarden, who, in 2019, was convicted of murdering a parishioner and defrauding another (News, 23 October 2019). Field was arrested days before he was due to attend a bishops’ advisory panel to consider whether he should continue to ordination training. The Hall review notes that “cautious remarks” by the diocese of Oxford’s director of ordinands about Field’s personality appeared not to have been picked up.

After a lessons-learned review, changes were made to the discernment process. A psychological assessment is now required, and better communication between safeguarding departments and those who decide who is put forward for training.

 

THE language of “spiritual abuse” came into common usage only after Hall’s retirement, and was not used in any of the contemporary complaints made about his ministry — a fact that the report identifies as one of the impediments to the recognition of his behaviour as abusive.

The report makes 13 recommendations, among them that briefings and other resources on spiritual abuse be provided to congregations. A spokesperson for the diocese outlined work that was being done in this area, including the provision of workshops for parish safeguarding officers on 19 November (dedicated as “Safeguarding Sunday”), and a forthcoming feature on spiritual abuse in the diocesan magazine.

In a book published in 2019, the psychology lecturer Dr Lisa Oakley, and the chief executive of the safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight, Justin Humphreys, define spiritual abuse as being “characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context” (Features, 16 August 2019).

The other recommendations include better monitoring of complaints, including those made anonymously, after finding that there was no systematic record of accusations against Hall.

Last year, the diocese set up a formal process for making complaints about the conduct of a member of clergy which fell short of the level of severity required to initiate proceedings under the Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM). A replacement for the CDM received its first consideration in the General Synod this month (News, 14 July 2023).

Another recommendation is to “consider whether any penalties should be applied to a bishop who disregards a recommendation not to ordain, where the recommendation is subsequently shown by the ordinand’s behaviour to be justified”.

Yet another is to consider introducing a requirement for all clergy to take out professional indemnity insurance. This and other recommendations are to be referred to the National Safeguarding Team.

The review can be read in full at: www.oxford.anglican.org

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