“CHRIST CHURCH OXFORD JABS” – PRIVATE EYE – NO. 1539 [22 January – 4 Feb 2021]

THE governing body of Christ Church, Oxford, is nothing if not persistent in its efforts to force out the dean, Martyn Percy.

He was exonerated in 2019 by a hugely expensive tribunal under a senior high court judge; and then again last year by a Church of England “core group” investigation under the clergy discipline measure (CDM). Both inquisitions were at the behest of Canon Professor Graham Ward, a long-standing academic rival (Eye 1536). Professor Warlord has now put his name to a second CDM complaint, and last week the college’s governing body voted to initiate a second tribunal.

These actions follow an “independent investigation” by a safeguarding professional. Having no doubt scoured the country for the person best equipped to conduct an impartial inquiry, the governing body settled on Kate Wood – whose independence is in no way compromised by the fact that she works for the Church of England, and was involved with the core group that bungled an investigation into allegations against Bishop George Bell. As it happens, Percy was a member of the campaign group that overturned the work of that core group and rescued Bell’s reputation.

In spite of this and having worked for the Church for most of the past 12 years, Wood claims she had not heard of Percy, or the problems of Christ Church before this engagement, despite all the publicity. Her last investigative job for the Church was to inquire into the misdeeds of Bishop Victor Whitsey, a project on which she was managed by Elizabeth Pollard of the C of E’s national safeguarding team. As it also happens, Pollard is a very close friend of another key Christ Church governor, Professor Geraldine Johnson.

The new tribunal is investigating an allegation – which Percy denies – that he assaulted a verger at Christ Church by stroking her hair in the vestry after morning service. The alleged victim has acknowledged she was put under pressure to report the incident. “I knew it was a massive deal,” she said. “People wanted the final blow. I was thinking. ‘Is this important enough for that to happen?'”

Thames Valley police has investigated and said there is no case for further action. Wood neglected to visit Christ Church, or to interview witnesses offered by Percy, including the other person who was in the vestry at the time. Nevertheless, on the basis of her report, the college has decreed that Percy poses a “high” or “medium” risk of perpetuating further “sexual harassment or sexual assaults” on staff, students and minors.

The wily Censors of Christ Church not only engaged a C of E employee to conduct their investigation, they also engaged the C of E’s go-to legal firm, Winckworth Sherwood, which acts for no fewer than nine C of E dioceses, and for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council. It also provides a chair for the General Synod, and its alumni act as the church’s in-house solicitor and the senior law officer for the Province of Canterbury.

Winckworth Sherwood has little to gain from an early resolution to the Christ Church dispute. Partner Alison Talbot is acting for the Christ Church governing body, and her colleague Darren Oliver leads a team of no fewer than eight Winckworth Sherwood staff who work for the Diocese of Oxford. Coincidentally, Oliver is also registrar for the Diocese of Chichester – where Kate wood has her day job. Small world!

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