AN INDEPENDENT investigation, conducted by a retired police inspector for the Oxford Diocese, has unveiled a staggering level of abuse by the former vicar of St Margaret’s Church, the Rev. Michael Hall.
Mr Hall was appointed priest-in-charge in 1981, despite a job reference saying he was uncompromising and had difficulty working with other clergy, and retired after 19 years of turmoil and distress in 2000. He died two years ago aged 88.
No-one would have known the full story had it not been for the tragic suicide in January 2020 of a father-of-four in his forties who had suffered years of anxiety and depression as a result of witnessing first hand the Rev Hall’s abuse.
On hearing of the suicide, the vicar at the time, the Rev Mike Bisset, raised serious concerns with the diocese urging them to investigate the Rev. Hall’s past behaviour.
The Bishop of Oxford’s team made initial inquiries and decided in April last year that a full investigation was warranted and urged people in Penn and Tylers Green who had dealings with Mr Hall to come forward (see blog for April 2022).
The report, published today (21 July), is a deeply disturbing read.
Evidence from victims
STATEMENTS from people in the village who had involvement with Mr Hall included:
* “Several” reports of Rev Hall been aggressive and intimidating. He threw “no parking” cones at a police officer; punched a member of the congregation to prevent him leaving a service and hit two people on separate occasions.
* Children were made to feel worthless and were ‘paralysed with fear’ should they be found to be ‘not right with Rev. Hall’.
* One woman was encouraged by Rev Hall to restart a relationship with a man who had domestically abused her.
* Young people saw Rev Hall and other members of the congregation together completely naked and touching one another. Rev Hall said they were giving each other “healing massages”.
* Some children saw Rev Hall naked in their own home and he made no attempt to dress. Some interviewees said when they were children the Rev Hall had pinched their bottoms.
* He told some children that their parents were “stupid”.
*He told some members of the congregation not to have friends outside the church. On one occasion this resulted in a man not talking to his parents for up to three years.
* He said inappropriate things to a woman in her teens and later in her twenties including that she was ‘highly sexed’ and very attractive and he felt ‘funny’ being around her.
* Arranged for men to sexually touch women as they arrived at a party
IN ADDITION to physical and mental abuse, the report finds that Mr Hall indulged in the spiritual abuse of Christians attending St Margaret’s.
* Incidences of services being held in the dark and members of the congregation running out of the church crying.
* Called a bereaved mother “evil” when she left St Margaret’s to join another church.
* Shutting a member of the congregation in a broom cupboard, saying it was time he “turned to Christ”
*Persuaded some people to hand over the deeds of their houses to the church because “wealth was bad and wealthy people were dirty and evil.”
* Having failed to heal a couple’s seriously ill child through prayer, he publicly blamed the parents.
* Ordered bereaved parents not to look at videos of their dead child. Told another bereaved mother it was illegal to lay flowers on her child’s grave.
Why the church sat on its hands
COMPLAINTS about the Rev Hall began arriving before the Bishop of Buckingham and the Bishop of Oxford within months of him being appointed and the report says the church was slow to act.
In a telling paragraph the report states: “It is possible that any consideration of disciplinary action against Rev Hall during his tenure was thwarted by the prospect of lengthy, difficult and costly proceedings, and that knowledge of the disciplinary system’s shortcomings influenced the diocese’s lack of action on the complaints it received.”
The report points out that the Rev Hall, backed by a pliant parochial church council, was always quick to threaten and take legal action against anyone he disagreed with,
A classic example was when the patron of the church, Earl Howe, believing, as many did, that the Rev Hall was mentally ill, declined to recommend that the vicar be elevated from priest-in-charge to full incumbent and instead suggested he be retired on medical grounds.
The Rev Hall’s response was to sue the earl for libel, slander and defamation. The upshot was an out of court settlement in which the vicar and the earl withdrew their allegations and the bishop allowed Mr Hall to be instituted as full-fledged vicar in 1990.
‘Coercive, controlling, dogmatic, threatening and intimidating‘
THE REPORT concludes: “The combination of the close-knit community of the parish, together with mistrust of the diocese, may have led parishioners to try to resolve matters of disagreement at parish level rather than complain to the diocese.
“This failed, however, because of Rev Hall’s coercive, controlling, dogmatic, threatening and intimidating behaviours.
“By taking their complaints directly to Rev Hall, parishioners may have been subjected to further abuse by him.
“There was also a culture of deference towards vicars, more so perhaps than there is today, which reinforced the power imbalance in favour of the Rev Hall over the congregation.
“The Rev Hall also tried to intimidate and threaten other members of the clergy, successfully challenged the patron of St Margaret’s Church and contested with local government officers.
“There does not appear to have been a situation in which anyone successfully challenged him.
“Those in positions of power, specifically, the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of Buckingham were made powerless by the Rev Hall, and the patron’s power was significantly reduced by the Rev Hall’s actions.
The Rev Hall died during the first part of the investigation and did not, so far as is known, put forward his side of the story. His family were invited to contribute to the inquiry but declined to do so.
The church goes into great detail in the report into its belief that similar circumstances would not happen today because of changes, particularly in safeguarding, that have taken place in the last 20 years.
Nonetheless it concedes that more can still be done and the report makes 13 recommendations to tighten up procedures.
The present Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Dr Alan Wilson, who was not in office in the Rev Hall’s time, said: “I am truly sorry for what happened in Tylers Green.”
You can read the report in full on https://www.oxford.anglican.org/news/learning-lessons-review-revd-michael-hall.php
UPDATE – The reaction
RICHARD Scorer, a solicitor specialising in abuse cases, told The Times: “This is one of the most disturbing cases I have come across in the Church of England. Hall was a profoundly abusive and deranged individual.”
Lord Harries, the Bishop of Oxford between 1987 and 2006 told the diocese: “In all this period there were three factors which made it impossible to lance the boil of this terrible situation.
“First, there were to my knowledge no official complaints. People might whisper and speak anonymously, but they were too intimidated to go public.
(Note: Lord Harries’ recollection is incorrect; I myself wrote to the Bishops of Buckingham and Oxford and the Archbishop of Canterbury and received acknowledgements and rather feeble responses. I know of at least three others in the village who officially complained. There was ample press coverage from time to time – see below – quoting complainants)
“Secondly, and linked with that, Hall made it clear he would institute proceedings against anyone he thought slandered or libelled him. Together with this was the simmering violence that people sometimes sensed in his personality, which must have been frightening.
“Thirdly, he always managed to have a majority of the PCC (Parochial Church Council) on his side, no doubt recruiting more supporters as and when previous ones were alienated.”
Earl Howe told the Sunday Times:”I thought he was entirely unsuitable to be a priest.(He was) someone who could not take criticism of any kind. Someone who targeted people, especially widows, at their most vulnerable, with the aim of making them pathologically dependent on him.”
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