Tribunal finds priest guilty of abuse of spiritual power and authority
On Monday 8th January, the Church of England reported the findings of the Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal for the Diocese of Oxford in the matter of a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 against The Reverend Timothy Davis, Vicar of Christ Church Abingdon, (‘TD’), in respect of the mentoring he provided to a 15/16 year old schoolboy (‘W1’) whose family were members of his congregation. The BBC reports that Church of England officials believed that this was the first occasion on which a tribunal had convicted a priest of spiritual abuse.
The complaint was that from the end of 2011/beginning of 2012 TD began to mentor W1 with such intensity and in such a manner that he was in breach of safeguarding procedures both of the national Church but also of the parish and that this amounted to spiritual abuse and thereby he is guilty of misconduct . Sir Mark Hedley, Deputy President of the Tribunal, reviewed the complaint, and on 23 January 2017 referred to the Tribunal the allegation of abuse of spiritual power or authority in relation to W1, with the charge:
- throughout the said period being engaged in a mentoring so intense that W1 was put under unacceptable pressure having regard to his age and maturity and was deprived of his freedom of choice as to whether to continue with the same;
- on occasions too numerous to particularise during the said period was in breach of the safeguarding requirements by being alone with W1 whether in his house or in the vicarage or other places and on occasions deliberately touching him albeit not in a sexual manner
- under the guise of his authority sought to control by the use of admonition, Scripture, prayer and revealed prophecy the life of W1 and /or his relationship with his girlfriend
- under the guise of his authority procured and retained the consent of W1’s parents to this relationship
- throughout the said period failed to have any regard to the propriety of the said conduct and/or its effect on others and in particular on W1.
The complaint was heard at Southwark Cathedral in December 2017. The Determination considered both the legal and the professional framework. With regard to the former:
- under S8(1) CDM, disciplinary proceedings may be instituted against a clergyperson in respect of an allegation of any act or omission which includes “(d) conduct unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders”
- At S43, ‘misconduct’ is defined to be any act or omission referred to in Section 8(1) CDM. A ‘child’ is defined as a person under 18.
- By S18 CDM the standard of proof is to be the same as operated in the High Court to the civil standard, (i.e. balance of probabilities).
Relevant parts of the Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of Clergy are:
- at para 2.8, the place of the meeting and the appropriateness of visiting or being visited alone at night needs to be assessed with special care…“the clergy should recognise the importance of knowing themselves and their own emotional needs”
- para 2.9 notes that it is essential that appropriate physical, sexual, emotional and psychological boundaries are acknowledged. “Inappropriate touching or gestures of affection are to be avoidVofed”’.
- para 3.2: the power of clergy over others is identified and it is noted that this power must not be used to bully, manipulate or denigrate.
- para 3.3 requires the clergy to be sensitive to situations in which they are placed especially with regard to pastoral care of children, young people and vulnerable adults.
- at paragraph 3.6 it is noted that spiritual authority must always be exercised with gentleness and sensitivity and the minister should be aware of the possibility of spiritual abuse.
- In para 3.7 and 3.8 pastoral care by the clergy should never seek to remove autonomy from a person nor should power be exercised inappropriately.
Paragraphs 3.34 to 3.36 of Protecting All God’s Children 4th edition 2010 , the CofE Policy for Safeguarding Children, discuss spiritual abuse. Although there is no statutory definition of the term, it states that within faith communities harm can be caused by inappropriate use of religious belief or practice which can include the
misuse of authority of leadership, penitential discipline, oppressive teaching or intrusive healing and deliverance ministries.
The allegations are considered in paras 14 to 25, and the Respondent’s case in paras 26 to 37.
The Tribunal’s analysis of the evidence found W1 to be “a truthful and reliable witness who was anxious to provide it with all relevant detail and did not exaggerate or seek to enhance his evidence””. W2 [W1’s mother] was also “a credible and reliable witness”, but found find that TD’s evidence was unreliable; “where there was a conflict of fact between him and W1, W2 and the curate, [it preferred] their evidence to his” .
Five particular aspects were considered:
Particular 1: Throughout the said period being engaged in a mentoring so intense that W1 was put under unacceptable pressure having regard to his age and maturity and was deprived of his freedom of choice as to whether to continue with the same. [39 to 45].
Particular 2: On occasions too numerous to particularise during the said period was in breach of the safeguarding requirements by being alone with W1 whether in his house or in the vicarage or other places and on occasions deliberately touching him albeit not in a sexual manner. [46 to 48].
Particular 3: Under the guise of his authority sought to control by the use of admonition, Scripture, prayer and revealed prophecy the life of W1 and /or his relationship with his girlfriend. [49 to 50].
Particular 4: Under the guise of his authority procured and retained the consent of W1’s parents to this relationship. .
Particular 5: Throughout the said period failed to have any regard to the propriety of the said conduct and/or its effect on others and in particular on W1. [52 to 58]. The Tribunal stated [emphasis added]:
“58. Mr Gau’s closing submission to us included the point that unless TD had an intention to abuse spiritually he could not be guilty of doing it. We disagree. We are satisfied that someone can ‘spiritually abuse’ another (as defined at para 3.34-3.36 of the Protecting All Gods Children p 16) both if they intend to do it , but also if they do and say things not caring what the effect may have on the other person, because they have placed their own needs and interests first. We are satisfied that TD acted in the way he did with W1 in a way that lacked propriety and failed to heed the effect it was having on others and in particular W1″.
“. In concluding that all 5 Particulars are proved we are satisfied that TD is guilty of abuse of spiritual power and authority over W1and in so doing placed himself in breach of the Guidelines for professional conduct of clergy as set out at paras 9-12 above, and is guilty of misconduct which was unbecoming and inappropriate to the work and office of a Clerk in Holy Orders. He is therefore guilty of misconduct under S8 CDM.
. In reaching this conclusion we emphasise again that there is no suggestion of any sexual touching by TD, nor do we find that any sexual touching took place. We acknowledge the powerful and successful ministry that TD has had in leading Christ Church Abingdon and earlier ministerial posts in which he has served . However, we are satisfied that he is guilty of the misconduct alleged.”
The penalty will now be considered and Directions will be given as to the date of the hearing to fix penalty.
A recent report commissioned by the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) Understanding Spiritual Abuse in Christian Communities, Oakley & Humphreys  commented:
“Existing work around this experience (which is characterised by a systematic pattern of controlling and coercive behaviour in a religious context), is still in its infancy, to the extent that there is not currently universal agreement about this as a term.”
The on-line survey was completed by 1,591 people of which 1,002 (self) identified as having experienced spiritual abuse themselves. 69% of the total sample were female and 31% male There was representation from across the age range but the majority were aged between 30-69 years. The majority of respondents were from the Anglican, Baptist, Independent, Pentecostal and Quaker traditions. However, the numbers of respondents from Catholic and Methodist denominations were low.
The research found that 33% of respondents stated their Church or Christian organisation had a policy that included spiritual abuse; only 24% of respondents had received training on spiritual abuse.