Oxford college hits back at former dean over ‘untrue’ claims in bitter feud

One of Oxford university’s richest colleges has hit back at its former dean, accusing him of “untrue” claims and some of his supporters of attacking a young woman who accused the cleric of sexual harassment.

Christ Church, the alma mater of 13 prime ministers, also questioned an account by the former dean, theologian Martyn Percy, of how he helped a distressed female student in the shower.

The college’s statement is its first detailed account of a bitter feud that has lasted for four years and caused ructions in both the university and the Church of England. The dispute has cost millions of pounds in legal fees and shown weaknesses in the statutes of Oxford colleges.

Hostilities appeared to have ended in February, when Percy agreed to step down as head of the college in a £1.2mn settlement. But they were reignited by an interview with The Times this month, in which he claimed that academics had tried “to destroy [him] financially, reputationally and psychologically”.

In the interview, Percy said the dispute dated back to 2016, when he was “left entirely alone” to help a female student out of a shower after she had cut her foot.

In a 4,500-word response on Friday, Christ Church said: “Dr Percy’s account omits the fact that he himself had supported the student’s request to remain in residence over the vacation.”

It added that it was “unclear” why the then dean had dried and dressed the student alone. In reply, Percy said that he had in fact been watched over by a duty porter, but that the college had lacked arrangements for emergencies in university holidays.

Christ Church claimed that student safety was not the source of the dispute with Percy. “The main reason for the initial falling-out between Dr Percy and Christ Church was the way he set about trying to obtain a substantial pay rise in 2017 . . . [T]he dean at no stage made any proposals to governing body to modify Christ Church’s safeguarding practices or policies.” It admits academics had sent “unpleasant emails” about Percy.

In 2019, a tribunal headed by a former High Court judge found that allegations of wrongdoing against Percy, made by the college’s governing body, did not meet the legal threshold to remove him from office.

A separate allegation of sexual harassment, which Percy denied, was settled as part of his exit. “Repeated claims by Dr Percy and his supporters that [the Church had] cleared or exonerated Dr Percy are simply untrue,” said the college.

It added that the “courageous” woman who made the allegation “had been subjected to repeated attacks on her probity in blogs and the press”.

Percy’s defenders include an unlikely combination of disgraced former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken and former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, neither of whom are accused of wrongdoing.

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