Welsh judge Sir Wyn Williams has delivered the findings of an independent review into the conduct of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford, writing that the Body was “fully entitled” to investigate the former Dean of the college, the Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy, after accusations of sexual harassment were made against him in October 2020.
The report sought to answer a number of questions about the conduct of the Governing Body in dealing with the allegations, such as appointing a “safeguarding consultant” to investigate the case, using Christ Church’s charitable funds to further the investigation, and continuing with the investigation once the police declared that there was insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution to go ahead. On all these counts, Williams found in favour of Christ Church’s Governing Body.
One of the key points of contention underpinning all these imputations of improper conduct by the Governing Body is the implication that the Body’s actions were partly motivated by the “history” between the Dean and the Governing Body. The Dean, the report notes, emailed the investigator hired by the college, Ms Kate Wood, suggesting that the complainant, known in the report as X so as to protect their anonymity, “might have been encouraged to make a complaint by individuals who had a strong interest in discrediting him.”
The case has long been mired in claims and counterclaims from supporters of Percy and the Governing Body respectively about the motivations behind the case. Percy was first suspended in 2018, with the Dean’s supporters suggesting that it was part of a conspiracy against him due to his request for an increased salary and attempts to modernise the college. Representatives of the College’s Governing Body refute such accusations. In November, Percy stepped down from his duties, with The Church of England and the Charities Commission having both intervened in the long-running dispute.
Williams argues in the independent review’s findings that there were “appropriate” safeguards in place in the Governing Body’s by-laws to prevent conflicts of interest from motivating the handling of the case. The report also notes that there was “nothing which can be categorised as unfair or unjust” about the way in which the findings of Ms Wood’s investigations into the complaints against Reverend Percy were communicated to members of the Governing Body.
As for conflicts of interest in how the findings of Ms Wood’s investigation were dealt with by Christ Church’s Governing Body, Williams again found no immediate signs of impropriety. The exclusion of the “members of the Governing Body initiating the complaint” from the decision making process, Williams argues, means that “it is very unlikely that a court or tribunal would strike down the decisions on the basis that there had been unfairness to the Dean in the manner in which information had been provided to those who signed the complaint prior to the complaint being made.”
However, Williams did concede that “I cannot rule out the possibility that the decisions made by individual members of the Governing Body were… based upon animosity towards the Dean”. Williams did say on the issue, though, that he saw “no direct evidence” which suggests that “individual members of the Governing Body were not acting in good faith.”
Williams explicitly mentions the correct behaviour of the Sub-Dean who “acted appropriately by informing the Dean of the fact of a complaint of sexual harassment and by appointing an independent investigator with considerable experience.”
Williams’ argument was that “the decisions made by the members of the Governing Body… were all within the range of decisions open to trustees acting reasonably and objectively.” This means that “crucially…the Governing Body was entitled to conclude that on the available material the complaint was supported by sufficient evidence which could, if proved, constitute good cause for the removal of the Dean from office.” Williams went as far as to say “I would have been surprised if the opposite conclusion had been reached.”
In light of the report’s findings, Christ Church College released a statement aimed at those who the college see as having tried to “undermine” the college’s “disciplinary processes” through the media in the past. The college asked such parties to now “allow the tribunal process to continue and reach a conclusion without further public comment, for the sakes of both the complainant and the respondent.”
This article was updated on March 13th to include Christ Church College’s official statement on the matter, and to reflect that the Dean was not ‘removed’ by Christ Church College, but rather stepped back from his duties, and that, per an email from Christ Church College, “this remains the case”.
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