Allegations against clergy under the Clergy Discipline Measure

A legal approach to the treatment of evidence

A recently-dismissed complaint of a priest’s alleged improper sexual relationship has wider implications on how the Church currently conducts investigations in this and related areas; it is also of relevance to the issue of “spiritual abuse” about which we posted in relation to a priest in the Oxford diocese. In December 2017, the Church of England reported the findings of the Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal for the Diocese of Leicester in the matter of a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 against The Reverend Timothy Blewett. The hearing took place on 23 and 24 March 2017 but the determination has only recently been posted on the Church’s website. The complaint against Mr Blewett was dismissed.

The facts

The allegation referred to the Tribunal by the Deputy President of Tribunals was as follows [4]:

‘That the conduct of the Respondent was unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a Clerk in Holy Orders within section 8(1)(d) of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 in that from about March 2012 to about September 2012 he, a married man, had an improper sexual relationship (which included adultery) with Ms X, a married woman, whom he had met in November 2011 while serving as Warden of Launde Abbey, a Christian retreat centre that Ms X visited and to whom he gave spiritual guidance acting as her spiritual director’ [4].

Although the present complaint was instituted more than a year after the last instance of misconduct alleged against the Respondent, in the circumstances the President gave permission under section 9 of the Measure for the proceedings to be instituted after the expiry of that period [7].

Ms X alleged that from November 2011 a relationship developed between her and Mr Blewett, who initially offered her spiritual direction and support. She alleged that on 11 March 2012 he had’ forced himself upon her and had sexual intercourse with her. She says that resulted in a pregnancy, but that she suffered a miscarriage in May 2012. She says there were further occasions of sexual relations after that, with their last meeting being in September 2012 [15]. Mr Blewett confirmed that he had offered spiritual direction and support to Ms X, including support in relation to the charity with which she was working, and that they became friends socially, but denied any physical or sexual impropriety. He specifically denied that any meeting took place on 11 March 2012 and disputed Ms X’s account of other occasions [17].

Arising from the alleged incident on 11 March 2012, though Ms X did not report her allegations initially, the police were contacted in April 2014 by a third party and, as a result, DC Robert Arthur met Ms X on 23 April 2014. In his witness statement dated 11 May 2014 he described their conversation, in which Ms X gave information about her relationship with Mr Blewett and about the incident which she said had occurred on 11 March 2012. DC Arthur recorded that Ms X did not disclose any criminal offence. There was no further police action, but the information provided by Ms X led to the present complaint being laid [18].

The conclusion

The Tribunal recognised that the nature of the allegations made by Ms X and the lapse of time might make it difficult for her to give precise details or dates of events or to obtain extrinsic evidence and its conclusion about the alleged incident on 11 March 2012 did not, of itself, “mean that other aspects of her evidence should not be accepted, but significant questions remain about the overall reliability of her account” [99]. In its view, Mr Blewett’s account was supported by factual evidence from other witnesses and by documentary material and, on the specific allegations, clearer and more reliable [100].

That said, the Tribunal found his evidence about the depth of his relationship with Ms X

“… rather confused and he had difficulty in describing the boundaries between spiritual direction and friendship. We are satisfied that the relationship between them was closer than he was prepared to admit. However, as a married man he had good reason to understate that and we are not satisfied that it is proper to infer that he was concealing a sexual relationship with Ms X” [100].

HHJ Waller and his colleagues on the Tribunal dismissed the complaint. However, they added a rider as follows:

“104. While we have dismissed the complaint against the Respondent, we wish to add a note about the Respondent’s evidence of his relationship with Ms X. We accept that his role was initially that of spiritual director. However, he quickly became involved in helping Ms X directly with the charity for whom she worked and in aspects of her personal life and a friendship between them developed rapidly. Her visits to his home .., including visits with her husband, and the later shopping trip to London showed a degree of friendship which, in our view, went beyond spiritual direction. The e-mail messages in October indicated a close emotional tie. The roles of spiritual director and friend are not necessarily incompatible. However, we consider that the Respondent did not maintain appropriate boundaries between his role as spiritual director and the developing friendship between him and Ms X and that he did not take sufficient account of her vulnerability…

105. We respectfully recommend that, if practicable, the Respondent be offered guidance and support in appreciating and maintaining appropriate boundaries in the role of spiritual director.”

Comment

Spiritual relationships

The two recent Tribunal decisions of The Reverend Timothy Davis (TD) and The Reverend Timothy Blewett (TB) provide an insight into the working of the CDM with regard to the spiritual relationships between clergy and members of their congregations, and also the evidential considerations under CDM tribunals. Two different aspects of clergy/parishioner “spiritual relationships” were under consideration: the case of TD concerned the mentoring provided to a 15/16-year-old schoolboy whose family were members of the priest’s congregation, and TB involved the relationship between an adult and her spiritual director.

With regard to TD, whilst the Tribunal was satisfied that he was guilty of abuse of spiritual power and authority, it emphasised that there was no suggestion that the mentoring involved any sexual involvement. With regard to TB, however, a sexual relationship was alleged, although the Tribunal dismissed the allegations and found the account given by Mr Blewett of the factual matters and events to be clearer and more consistent than that of Ms X, [74]. Furthermore, this was substantially supported by the evidence of his wife and in some respects by the statements of his witnesses [101].

In our post Clerical abuse of spiritual power and authority we noted that spiritual abuse is discussed in paragraphs 3.34 to 3.36 of Protecting All God’s Children 4th edition 2010, the CofE Policy for Safeguarding Children. Although there is no statutory definition of the term, the guidance 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. In TB, the Tribunal noted: 

“[104]. …The roles of spiritual director and friend are not necessarily incompatible. However we consider that [TB] did not maintain appropriate boundaries between his role as spiritual director and the developing friendship between him and Ms X and that he did not take sufficient account of her vulnerability. There is, in our view, a striking difference between the development of his friendship with Ms X and the professional role which [witnesses] describe [at 66].”

Whilst the Tribunal’s decision concluded by recommending that the Respondent should be offered guidance and support in relation to his role of spiritual director, no equivalent recommendation was made in relation to the circumstances under which TD exerted undue “spiritual power and authority”. However, the focus of tribunal hearings is the conduct of the individual(s) rather than the institutional arrangements. Nevertheless, there appear to be issues for the local and wider church to address in relation to spiritual abuse, and mentoring in particular. 

Evidential considerations

In Blewett, the evidential criteria were clearly identified [5 to 12] and the evidence put forward by the Archdeacon, as complainant, Ms X and the witness statement of DC Arthur [22 to 43], and the Respondent’s evidence, including that of the Respondent, his wife, and key factual evidence which emerged from other witness statements [44 to 66]. These were discussed and assessed, generally [67 to 77] and in relation to specific details [78 to 98].

Appeal

Although the Tribunal took place on 23 and 24 March 2017, the Written Reasons are dated 28 December 2017, (readers will find these posted under March 2017 on the CofE Tribunals Decisions page). In addition to the unacceptable delay between the hearing and the publication of the decisions, this is important, in that the Summary of the Decision concludes:

“Our written reasons will follow in due course and the time for any appeal is extended to run from the date of delivery of the written reasons.”

The time for appealing and for sending or delivering the notice of appeal is governed by The Clergy Discipline Appeal Rules 2005a as amended by the Clergy Discipline Appeal (Amendment) Rules 2013.

Historical note

The decision in Blewett is notable in that it is a rare example of a matter going all the way to a Tribunal and then being dismissed. Although the hearing against The Reverend David Faulks in 2007 found “significant and culpable financial inefficiency and incompetence”, it rejected any suggestion of dishonesty and imposed a conditional discharge.

David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer

With thanks to Mark Hill, QC, for bringing the decision on Blewett to our attention. 

Cite this article as: David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer, “Allegations against clergy under the Clergy Discipline Measure” in Law & Religion UK, 2 February 2018, https://wp.me/p2e0q6-aQV.

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