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EXCLUSIVE: Christ Church Dean’s witness statement reveals extent of Governing Body feud

Image credit: © 2020 Greg Blatchford

The full nature of the toxic feud between Christ Church and its Dean has been revealed in court documents obtained by The Oxford Blue. Christ Church Dean The Very Revd Martyn Percy has spoken out for the first time about the factional war dividing the historic college in his witness statement.

Martyn Percy made his 70-page statement at a legal hearing this week during the ongoing Employment Tribunal, detailing his claims of mistreatment by the Christ Church Governing Body. Christ Church argues that the Tribunal should be thrown out on a procedural basis due to the nature of Percy’s employment at the college. The Oxford Blue understands that Christ Church attempted to stop these documents from being publicly released, but the judge overruled objections.

Percy, who presides over both the College and the Cathedral, was elected Dean in 2014. Christ Church is the only Oxford college which requires the Head of House be a member of the clergy. 

In November 2018, Percy was suspended from office, following a formal complaint made against him. Christ Church cited the Dean’s  behaviour of an “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature”, and an independently-chaired internal tribunal was established. In January 2019, the Governing Body said that Percy’s suspension was triggered by a pay dispute. According to The Guardian, the dispute began in 2017 when Percy demanded a pay increase after discovering that his £95,000 salary fell short of that of other Oxford college heads. In August, the tribunal dismissed all charges against the Dean. Percy is now seeking damages at an ongoing Employment Tribunal.

In the statement, Percy outlined the serious damage the ongoing battle has had on his mental health, and named the members of the Governing Body who sent many malicious emails. Some of the email abuse was reported on by The Times earlier this year. These include Christ Church dons who allegedly called Percy a “manipulative little turd”, a “little Hitler”, and speculated about poisoning the Dean and finding his “withered little body” in a river. Until now, members of Christ Church Governing Body were forbidden from seeing these documents, which are now laid bare.

Most of the emails were sent between Emeritus PPE Professor David Hine, Law Tutor Professor Edwin Simpson, and Karl Sternberg, a graduate of Christ Church and founder of £100m fund Oxford Investment Management. The documents allege that Simpson also covertly recorded a meeting with Percy in 2018.

The scandal is said to have cost Christ Church £2 million in legal fees, and estimates of at least an additional £3 million in losses of bequests and donations. Percy’s supporters have covered at least £100,000 of costs in his legal fees so far.

As tensions heightened, the college offered Percy £1 million for his resignation. Percy refused to resign, and in a letter seen by The Telegraph in early June – signed by 61 of the 65 members of the college’s Governing Body – Percy was accused of disclosing “confidential material to the press”. The Body said “he is not fit to remain a trustee”.

Both the Church of England and the Charities Commission have intervened in the feud that has divided Christ Church over the last three years. In a statement, the Commission said it was concerned that “the very protracted and public dispute between the college’s governing body and its dean is damaging to the reputation of the charity, and affecting its ability to govern itself”. The Church of England also investigated claims that Percy failed to deal with sexual abuse allegations. Percy was exonerated by the Church for these claims earlier this month.

The context for the email exchanges is outlined in the 70-page document. On 15 October 2017, Percy emailed then-Junior Censor Geraldine Johnson and Senior ex-Censor David Hine. In that email, he told them that ChCh had been “non-compliant” in relation to safeguarding, especially in regards to students under 18. The document also outlines Percy’s claims that Christ Church has failed in their safeguarding responsibilities and duties of care to students following the Lavinia Woodward incident, where a Christ Church student stabbed her boyfriend in rage.

Percy’s supporters claim that a group within the governing body have been determined to remove him after he attempted to modernise the historic college and reform safeguarding procedures. His opponents argue that the dispute originated at the Dean’s attempts to secure a pay rise.

A spokesperson for Christ Church told The Oxford Blue: “It is regrettable that a dispute that began with the Dean’s requests to increase his own pay, and that is currently being considered by an Employment Tribunal, continues to distract Christ Church at a time when all colleges are facing enormous challenges in supporting and protecting their students and staff during the pandemic.”

The Very Revd Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church

On 27 October 2017, ex-Censor and Philosophy Tutor Lindsay Judson circulated a briefing note to the Salaries Board, assessing the Dean’s pay as 10th best of the Oxford Heads of House, following Percy’s demands of a salary review. Percy also emailed the Governing Body on that day raising concerns about welfare and discipline procedures, as well as requesting job descriptions for the Senior Censors. The Censors oversee the academic and social life of the college, though their specific roles are vague.

On the same day, David Hine emailed Edwin Simpson regarding Percy’s email, in the following terms: “The point is his low-grade mind can’t deal with them clinically and analytically, even if it can grasp the general idea, so he needs to be kept out of it. … I haven’t responded to his latest email yet or even acknowledged it. I want him to think I’m cross so I may give it a couple of days and hit him hard on Friday. … [He] is so stupid, so spiteful towards tutors and exCs [ex-Censors] and so unable to resist getting distracted in sideswipes, that he just can’t allow what’s really important to happen. And I’m coming to fear he’s unreformable in that regard.”

Edwin Simpson responded “Let him stew while we firmly recruit the current Censors to our side”.

The email exchanges between Hine and Simpson regarding the Dean are lengthy, and mostly concern ways to remove Percy from office.

With regard to an argument over a press release on 7 November 2017, David Hine emailed Edwin Simpson as follows: “OK he won that one. It doesn’t make him any less of a creep. … I wonder if there’s any other way we can rattle him….”

Hine said to Simpson in several emails in November 2017 of the Dean: “Nasty and stupid. He’s working against us not for us .. He’s got to go!”  and asked if Simpson knew of “any good poisoners.”

By email dated 15 November 2017, Karl Sternberg, financier and member of Christ Church governing body, and who appears a protagonist in this tale, wrote: “We are doomed with this wretched man in place”. This was followed shortly afterwards with: “He is such a manipulative little turd. … Dirk [Aarts, Junior Censor] v useful, as was Mishtooni, the sub-dean utterly in the pocket of the little Hitler.”

Karl Sternberg emailed Maths Professor Kevin McGerty on 11 January 2018 stating that Percy was “incorrigible, and thick and a narcissist.”

Karl Sternberg also emailed David Hine “In confidence”, saying: “think of the Inspector Morse episode we could make when his wrinkly withered little body is found at Osney Lock” He sent a similar email on the same day to Lindsay Judson.

Sternberg continued to criticise the Dean over email to his colleagues, calling him a “militantly irenic megalomaniac”. He emailed Dirk Aarts referring to the “ongoing Percy fiefdom” and “Mrs Dean’s verbal diarrhoea,” an insult aimed at Martyn Percy’s wife Emma, Chaplain of Trinity College. Sternberg said that Mr Percy had a “track record in stupidity,” and claimed that Percy was suffering from a “personality disorder.”

In the document, Percy also claims that he has been excluded from the majority of his duties. He says that he has been excluded from chairing committees, attending the Conference of Colleges and  that his speeches for Gaudy Dinners are required to be submitted in advance for vetting. Percy claims that he and his wife have been ostracised by colleagues, and that when an Emeritus Student attempted to deliver a card to the Deanery, she was angrily remonstrated by David Hine, who was passing the front door of the Deanery at the time.

Percy alleges that members of the Governing Body had been informed not to speak to the Dean, and that his wife Emma was removed from the Cathedral preaching and liturgy rota from October 2018 at the express request of Residentiary Canon Sarah Foot to the Diocesian Canon of the Cathedral, Grant Bayliss.

Christ Church told The Oxford Blue: “As part of the Employment Tribunal process, claims made by the Dean have become public. These include unsubstantiated allegations that Christ Church robustly denies, as will become evident when a defence against these claims is presented in court.”

“Some of the material in the Dean’s claims relate to internal disciplinary proceedings at Christ Church, covered extensively by the media, which related to the Dean’s requests to increase his own pay. These proceedings concluded over a year ago, when it was decided that the Dean’s behaviour did not meet the threshold for dismissal. The Dean has been reinstated at Christ Church since August 2019. However, as a result of his ongoing legal action against Christ Church, the Dean has a number of conflicts of interest which require him to recuse himself from certain activities in and on behalf of Christ Church.”

Martyn Percy has been contacted for comment.