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Christ Church Board of Governors warned of jail time

Isaac Ettinghausen reports on the latest developments in the dispute between Christ Church and the Very Rev Martyn Percy.

The Charity Commission has warned Christ Church’s board of governors that they could face jail time if they mislead inquiries into an ongoing dispute with the dean. 

The Very Rev Martyn Percy, dean since MT14, is at the centre of the conflict; since a 2018 dispute over his pay, the college’s governing body of 65 dons has been attempting to remove him. Following his exoneration at a 2019 internal tribunal, Percy has now been suspended pending a second tribunal over claims that he stroked a woman’s hair in the college’s cathedral a year ago.

Both the police and the Church of England have dismissed the sexual assualt case, and in December the college announced that it was setting up a medical board to determine whether he was mentally fit to continue as dean. 

The dispute shows few signs it is reaching a conclusion; last July, mediator Bill Marsh, who has resolved disputes in the Middle East and Ireland, admitted defeat in an attempt to reconcile the two sides. The college’s legal spending has run into the millions – even without the reimbursement of the dean’s own legal fees, a measure which the Charity Commission has recommended.

The Commission, which regulates educational institutions with charitable status such as Oxford’s colleges, has become increasingly concerned over the legal fees incurred over the course of the controversy. In a letter to Christ Church’s board of governors, the Commission’s director of regulatory services Helen Earner warned the body that it was a criminal offence to knowingly provide false or misleading information or to suppress, conceal or destroy documents.

The Times reported that “several dons are understood to be worried about their legal position and question whether they have been kept fully informed.”

Earner also complained that the minutes of meetings had been unnecessarily redacted, and that the body had failed to provide sufficient documentation on the financial impact of the feud, demanding a breakdown on the college’s annual spending including fees paid to PR firms.

Late last month, attempts by the University’s chancellor were met by hostility on the part of the board of governors. Lord Patten of Barnes, the last governor of Hong Kong and Oxford’s chancellor since 2003, co-wrote a letter to the governing body on 20th December asking to be invited to its next meeting to discuss the dispute.

In the letter Patten, along with vice-chancellor Professor Louise Richardson, expressed concerns over the conflict, worrying that it was having a ‘deleterious’ effect on the university’s image.

Professors Dirk Aarts, Kevin McGerty, and Sarah Foot, the governing body’s leaders known as the Censors, replied two days later, saying that they would meet with Patten and Richardson with positive updates. This was following a fractious internal email correspondence, between the censors and Martin Townsend, the former editor of OK! Magazine and the Sunday Express, who is offering PR advice as part of the Pagefield PR agency.

Sarah Foot, the censor representing the cathedral, wrote that “while we have to say we are happy to meet [Patten and Richardson], I am worried how The Times will spin this as further evidence that college isn’t properly governed and outside authorities are circling with intent”.

Aarts, the senior censor and a chemistry professor, wrote that “it is none of their business… at the meeting we can explain that we are dealing with an investigation of sexual harassment (takes five mins) and they may then make suggestions. Are they really going to suggest we don’t investigate?”

Townsend warned of the PR risks of an open conflict with Patten, describing him as “a still-popular figure who is well known to far more of the general public than Martyn Percy”. He continued that “It is to our advantage there is still only limited public interest in this dispute” and that “picking a fight with Chris Patten would change that.” 

Junior censor McGerty suggested that a dispute may “severely” damage the reputations of Patten and Richardson, the latter of whom is leaving Oxford next January to become president of the Carnegie Corporation, an educational philanthropic fund.

McGerty continued: “Were Richardson visibly to be on the wrong side of how sexual harassment was portrayed in the press, I would not be surprised if her position at Carnegie evaporated and although you [Townsend] say that Patten is well thought of, none of our undergraduates were born when he was governor of Hong Kong, none of them remember a time when he was an ‘acceptable Tory’ in the New Labour era, so to them he is a dinasour [sic] who has been chancellor of the university for essentially all their lives. Appearing on the wrong side of how sexual harassment should be handled would be pretty humiliating for them.”

The Office of the Vice Chancellor declined to comment when approached by Cherwell.

Rev Jonathan Aitken, an ally of Percy and former government minister, told Cherwell: “I welcome the belated involvement of the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor.  At present it looks as though they are going to be blocked and snubbed by the Censors…But if they are allowed to address the entire 65 strong Governing Body and show bold leadership then the engagement of the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor could be a game changer.”

Martyn Percy, the Censors, Martin Townsend, and the Chancellor were approached for comment.

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