Dispute with priest threatens to mire Oxford college in scandal

The head of one of Oxford university’s grandest colleges has indicated that he will agree to step down after a long-running dispute in a deal that includes a £1.5m pay-off and the settlement of a sexual harassment claim against him.

But the woman who has complained about his conduct said that she wanted the investigation “to proceed unimpeded and without interference”, posing a dilemma for the university and the Charity Commission, which are pushing for a rapid resolution.

Christ Church, the alma mater of 13 prime ministers, has been riven by a five-year dispute that has already cost the college millions of pounds in legal fees and damaged Oxford’s reputation.

The dispute began in 2017 when the dean, a priest called Martyn Percy, asked for an increase to his annual pay of £90,000, but it has descended into trench warfare over who controls an institution with assets of £600m.

Percy vehemently denies any wrongdoing and so far has declined to resign after losing the confidence of the majority of the governing body.

Various legal proceedings have dripped with acrimony, including claims of leaked documents and anonymous harassment campaigns. They have revealed deep institutional flaws at Christ Church, which was founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 and whose alumni have included John Locke, William Gladstone and the creator of Alice in Wonderland, the maths lecturer Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll.

Christ Church, which was founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 © Serg Zastavkin/Dreamstime

The situation is complicated by the fact that Percy is currently suspended from his role following a complaint of sexual harassment, which he denies. That dispute, made by a young female employee of the cathedral in October 2020, is separate to his main dispute with Christ Church.

Thames Valley police decided that the alleged harassment — reported to include stroking the woman’s hair in the cathedral — did not meet a criminal standard. Supporters of the dean have downplayed the incident. However, Christ Church’s authorities have decided that it merits investigation under the college statutes. A hearing is due to take place in March.

“Some outside parties have lost sight of the fact that an allegation of sexual harassment and impropriety is at the core of this issue,” one person close to the college said.

In a statement, the woman said: “Had I not judged the incident to be inappropriate and extremely distressing, I should not have decided to make a formal complaint. I made this decision myself, under no pressure from any other person. I applaud Christ Church for taking an allegation of sexual harassment seriously and I hope that Christ Church’s tribunal is able to proceed unimpeded and without interference.”

Three grandee alumni — Lord Charles Cecil, a former banker who is the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, Robin Priest, a former partner at Deloitte, and Sir John Aird, a one-time page of honour to the Queen ­— this month proposed that the dean receive a termination payment of £1.5m “net of all tax and national insurance deductions”, in exchange for agreeing to leave his post and drop his employment tribunal claim against the college.

Christ Church would also “reimburse the dean in full” for any legal and other professional costs, the proposal says. That would take the total settlement into several million pounds.

One person familiar with the proposal said the settlement would see the dean oversee a governance review, but leave “in a matter of months”. Christ Church would also pay “financial recompense” to the female complainant.

Percy thinks the proposal is “a sensible way forward”, according to one supporter, Deborah Loudon. “The dean seeks a way forward that might allow him to work again and to recoup and repair his finances.”

Priest, one of the proponents of the settlement, has previously allied with Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former Tory MP who attended Christ Church; together with other alumni, they accused the college’s governing body of “catastrophic misjudgement” in its dispute with Percy.

Christ Church declined to comment on the alumni’s proposal.

The college’s problems have been accentuated by the fact that it is a rare hybrid of the Church of England and academia: it is run by a priest but the majority of its governing body are academics.

The governing body initially sought to remove Percy in 2018 using a provision in the college statutes relating to “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature”. A retired High Court judge who heard the dispute found that the dean’s behaviour did not meet this threshold.

In 2020, 41 members of the approximately 65-member governing body said the dean had shown “a consistent lack of moral compass”, but they have limited legal options to remove him before he reaches the statutory retirement age in 2032.

Oxford university’s chancellor, Lord Chris Patten, and vice-chancellor, Dame Louise Richardson, met senior figures at Christ Church this week to urge an end to the stand-off with the dean. However, they also have limited powers, because of the university’s decentralised nature.

Chris Patten met senior figures at Christ Church this week to urge an end to the stand-off with the dean © David Hartley/Shutterstock

The Charity Commission, which oversees Oxford colleges, has sought to facilitate a settlement, saying Christ Church could use its charitable funds to pay the dean’s legal fees. The commission’s own incoming chair resigned last month before he was set to take up the role following revelations about his own conduct in a previous job.

The college and the dean are due to enter mediation, separate from the alumni’s proposal, this month. Meanwhile, the college has appointed a panel to advise on whether Percy, who has taken sick leave during the dispute, is medically unfit for office. His supporters say the panel is an example of bullying and that he is in fact ready for a phased return to work.

Percy has continued to speak at events and write on theological issues while suspended as dean. In one essay, uploaded to his personal website in September 2021, he accused the Church of England’s leadership of “systemic autism”, for which he later apologised.

In another essay, which emerged in November, he compared his plight as dean to that of Holocaust victims. Christ Church’s student representatives accused him of “trivialis[ing] the suffering of Nazi persecution”, and the Diocese of Oxford said the essay was “a misappropriation of the Holocaust”. Percy apologised “for any offence caused”.

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