A dispute with the priest threatens to scandalize Oxford College

The head of one of the largest colleges at Oxford University has said he will agree to step down after a long-running dispute over a deal involving the payment of £ 1.5 million and a lawsuit for sexual harassment.

But the woman, who complained about his behavior, said she wanted the investigation to “run smoothly and without interference”, which poses a dilemma for the university and the charity, which are demanding a speedy resolution.

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

The controversy began in 2017 when the dean, a priest named Martin Percy, demanded an increase in his annual salary of £ 90,000, but turned into a trench war over who controls an institution with assets of £ 600 million.

Percy categorically denies any wrongdoing and has so far refused to resign after losing the confidence of the governing body.

Various lawsuits have been filled with outrage, including leaked claims and anonymous harassment campaigns. They revealed deep institutional shortcomings in Christ Church, which was founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 and whose graduates were John Locke, William Gladstone and the founder of Alice in Wonderland, math teacher Charles Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll.

The main buildings of Christ Church

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

The situation is complicated by the fact that Percy is currently removed from his role after complaining of sexual harassment, which he denies. This dispute, made by a young employee of the cathedral in October 2020, is separate from his main dispute with Christ Church.

Thames Valley police have ruled that the alleged harassment – reportedly involving stroking a woman’s hair in the cathedral – does not meet criminal standards. Dean’s supporters downplayed the incident. However, Christ Church authorities said it deserved an investigation under the college’s bylaws. The hearing is scheduled for March.

“Some outsiders have lost sight of the fact that allegations of sexual harassment and wrongdoing are at the heart of the matter,” said a man close to the college.

In a statement, the woman said: “If I did not consider the incident inappropriate and extremely worrying, I would not decide to file a formal complaint. I made this decision on my own, without pressure from anyone else. I applaud Christ Church for taking the allegation of sexual harassment seriously and hope that the Christ Church Tribunal can continue unhindered and without interference.

Three alumni – Lord Charles Cecil, a former Hertfordshire sheriff’s banker, Robin Priest, a former Deloitte partner, and Sir John Eard, the Queen’s one-off homepage – this month suggested the dean receive a termination fee of £ 1. 5 million “excluding all tax and national insurance deductions” in exchange for agreeing to resign and withdraw his labor lawsuit against the college.

Christ Church will also “reimburse the dean in full” for all legal and other professional expenses, the proposal said. That would cost several million pounds.

One person familiar with the proposal said the dean would oversee the board’s review under the agreement, but would leave “in a few months”. Christ Church will also pay “financial compensation” to the applicant.

Percy believes the proposal is a “reasonable way forward”, according to one supporter, Deborah Louden. “The dean is looking for a way forward that can allow him to work again and recover and improve his finances.”

Priest, one of the proponents of the agreement, had previously allied himself with Jonathan Aitken, the disgraced former Tory MP who visited Christ Church; along with other alumni, they accused the college’s governing body of “catastrophic misjudgment” in its dispute with Percy.

Christ Church declined to comment on the alumni proposal.

The college’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that it is a rare hybrid of the Anglican Church and academia: run by a priest, but most of its governing body is academics.

Initially, the governing body tried to remove Percy in 2018, using a provision in the college’s statutes related to “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature.” A retired Supreme Court judge hearing the case found that the dean’s behavior did not meet this threshold.

In 2020, 41 members of the approximately 65-member governing body said the dean had shown a “persistent lack of moral compass” but had limited legal options to remove it before reaching the legal retirement age in 2032.

Oxford University Chancellor Lord Chris Patton and Vice Chancellor Lady Louise Richardson met with senior figures at Christ Church this week to demand an end to the opposition to the dean. However, they also have limited powers due to the decentralized nature of the university.

Chris Patton during a ceremony in Oxford
Chris Patton met with senior figures at Christ Church this week to push for an end to opposition to the dean © David Hartley / Shutterstock

The charity, which oversees Oxford colleges, has tried to ease the deal by saying Christ Church could use its charities to pay the dean’s legal fees. The new chairman of the commission resigned last month before taking office after revelations about his own behavior at a previous job.

The college and the dean must enter into mediation, separate from the alumni proposal, this month. Meanwhile, the college has appointed a commission to advise whether Percy, who took sick leave during the dispute, is not medically unfit for the job. Supporters say the panel is an example of harassment and that he is actually ready to return to work in stages.

Percy continued to speak at events and write on theological issues until he was removed as dean. In an essay posted on his personal website in September 2021, he accused the leadership of the Church of England of “systemic autism”, for which he later apologized.

In another essay published in November, he compared his plight as dean to that of Holocaust victims. Christ Church students accused him of “trivial[ing] the suffering of Nazi persecution, ”and the Diocese of Oxford said the essay was a“ misappropriation of the Holocaust. ” Percy apologized for the insult.

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