Judgment day looms in the battle of Westminster Abbey

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the most medieval and highly unusual legal processes will begin this week when Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle, the Lord Chancellor's representative, starts his formal investigations into the sacking of Martin Neary, the organist at Westminster Abbey.

The private appeal procedure will be almost without precedent and is the result of the abbey's status as a "Royal Peculiar" - an Anglo-Saxon arrangement whereby certain churches owe allegiance directly to the sovereign, rather than to a bishop.

The procedure is so secretive that, when it opens on Wednesday, nobody except for a few ecclesiastical fellows will know where the in-camera session is to take place

Lord Jauncey, 73, is a senior Scottish judge who retired as a law lord in 1996, yet his verdict on Dr Neary's dismissal is bound to be contentious and, if it goes in favour of Dr Neary, it may result in the resignation of the dean of the abbey, the Very Rev Wesley Carr.

Dr Carr first suspended Dr Neary, his Master of Choristers, in March, following strongly denied allegations of financial irregularities. The acclaimed organist's case immediately attracted support from all over the country, and he won striking testimonials from public figures as disparate as John Gummer, the Tory MP and former Environment Secretary, and Frank Field, the Labour MP and former Social Security minister.

Nevertheless, in April Dr Carr proceeded with an internal disciplinary hearing at the abbey and dismissed both Dr Neary and his wife, Penny, who had been in charge of arranging the choir's concerts.

Since that day Dr Carr has been portrayed by Dr Neary's friends as close to a malevolent force of nature. He has been accused of callously sacking elderly guides and instituting unnecessary modernisations at the abbey. This week he even stands charged with targeting pupils at neighbouring Westminster School; he is said to be annoyed at the boys' slovenly behaviour as they pass through Dean's Yard and into their school hall each day.

Although Dr Carr has refused to comment on the issue, Tristram Parry- Jones, the school's new headmaster, is mystified.

"If our pupils were to misbehave, the last place they would do it is Dean's Yard where everything is totally public," he told the Independent on Sunday.

The only explanation Mr Parry-Jones can offer for the putative friction between his boys and Dr Carr is that the traditional speech given by the Dean at the school's annual Greaze Day celebrations last term may have been a little more robust than usual.

"I'm sure it went down well though, and was just the kind of thing you would say to a group of boys who had just thrown the traditional pancake over an iron bar," he said.

By now the Dean, even after only a year in the job, must be used to seeing himself traduced in print. Not only is he an outspoken critic of the ordination of women, but also, after the incident with the sacked guides, it was suggested by some of the choristers' parents that the abbey had failed to pass on profits made from the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was also claimed that he secretly planned to arrange the merger of the historic, 38-pupil abbey choir school with Westminster School. Both allegations have been firmly denied by the abbey and the two schools.

Thus far Dr Carr's only response to the spiralling controversy surrounding him has been to appoint a spin doctor. Public-relations consultant Caroline Cecil was called in this June and shortly afterwards the Dean was spotted breaking with habit and taking time for cordial handshakes with his congregation as they left the abbey.

This week could be crunch time for the Dean, however. Even if Lord Jauncey finds in his favour, Dr Neary and his wife are unlikely to go quietly.

It had been alleged that a company set up by the couple wrongly kept "fixing fees" for each abbey choir concert that took place abroad, but the Nearys' legal representatives have always contended that the company was set up for tax reasons alone and that the accounts were always open for inspection.

Many of the Nearys' supporters suspect the argument between the two men really started when the dean attempted to interfere with the abbey's musical programme. Dr Neary, who was made an LVO (Lieutenant, Royal Victorian Order) by the Queen following his orchestration of the funeral music for Diana, is widely seen as having greatly improved the choir's standards during his 10-year tenure.