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Christ Church receives official warning for financial mismanagement after spending £6.6m on disputes with former dean

Olivia Boyle reports.

Christ Church has been issued an official warning by the Charity Commission for the “mismanagement” of £6.6m spent in disputes with its former dean, Very Reverend Professor Martyn Percy. Christ Church did provide an 800 page document of proof against mismanagement claims but was not able to do it in “a timely manner”, forcing the Charity Commission, whose role is “to ensure that charities are governed effectively and that charitable funds are properly accounted for”, to intervene. 

Last year, Cherwell reported on the dispute, in which the College twice brought Percy to tribunal, the first in a dispute over pay and the second after he was accused of inappropriately stroking a woman’s hair in Chapel. The dispute has rumbled on since 2019, until Percy left the College earlier this year. A Financial Times investigation in 2019 called Christ Church “virtually ungovernable.”

However, a spokesperson from Christ Church told Cherwell that in “very complex and constantly challenging circumstances” the college and individual trustees “repeatedly asked the Charity Commission for help to resolve the disputes with Dr Percy” who was otherwise “unfit” to be a trustee. The former dean’s refusal to settle apparently “maximised” costs and damages to the college. The Christ Church spokesperson suggested that the reason for such a long and protracted dispute was that the presence of a sexual harassment allegation against Percy meant the needs of the student involved had to be fully addressed before the college could agree on a settlement. 

As Chris Patten, Chancellor of Oxford University, told The Times it has been five years of “protracted and ongoing” disputes that risk damages to the University’s reputation. It all began in 2017 with disagreement over Percy’s pay; though the dean was one of the best paid clerics in the Church of England, he was dissatisfied with his Christ Church salary. This sparked months of infighting resulting in twenty-seven complaints made against the dean including scandalous behaviour, unsound judgment, mental incapacity, and sexual harassment that were dismissed in a 2019 tribunal. Out of the £500m endowment the college receives per annum, a sum of £2m quickly tallied up between 2017 and 2019 for legal fees which between 2019 and 2022 grew further into a total of £6.6m all in pursuit of settlement with Percy. Moreover, over £5.3m labelled as “other direct costs – teaching, research, and residential” were only approved by the college retrospectively.  

Tia Patel, Christ Church’s JCR President, told Cherwell that “so-called dean-gate’s impact on us is minimal, with no impact on our studies”. Apparently students received an explanatory letter and the lead for the independent Governance Review, Rt Hon Dominic Grieve KC, has been in direct conversation with them. 

The Charity Commission found that Christ Church had failed to act on previous advice given in 2019-2020 to mediate the dispute formally. While the situation still remains unresolved, a spokesperson from Christ Church told Cherwell that the independent Governance Review has made substantial progress. The college is apparently also beginning a process of procedural reform to ensure any similar disputes in the future are resolved “fairly and cost-effectively”.

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