Priests to face new system of church justice

Wide-ranging reforms proposed in attempt to streamline outdated disciplinary procedures
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The Church of England is to replace its cumbersome and expensive system of church courts, whose ancestry goes back before the Norman conquest, with modern tribunals which will meet in secret. It will also introduce a new disciplinary offence of "gross inefficiency".

The new courts will enable bishops to deal effectively with heresy and sexual misconduct: the present system, last reformed in 1963, is so cumbersome and expensive that only three cases have ever been brought under it.

The reforms proposed yesterday arose from the case of the Rev Thomas Tyler, who was four times tried and convicted of adultery with one of his parishioners (twice on appeal) and whose protestations of innocence cost the church around pounds 250,000.

A committee chaired by Canon Alan Hawker was set up in 1992 to consider streamlining the system. While it deliberated, the trial took place of the Dean of Lincoln, the Very Rev Brandon Jackson, which cost the church a further pounds 100,000 and untold embarrassment before he was acquitted of an affair with Verity Freestone, a former verger at the cathedral.

The most controversial of the commission's recommendations, published yesterday, is that future trials of his sort should be held in private, unless he defendant wishes otherwise, though the verdict will always be publicly delivered.

As the report makes plain, clergy discipline is at present operated on two levels. About a third of English priests work on contracts, usually for five to seven years. They have at present little protection against a refusal to renew their contracts: the report mentions the case of the Rev Anthony Freeman, a Sussex priest sacked for deciding he no longer believed in God. However, had Mr Freeman been among the two-thirds of clergy whose jobs are held for life, under the "freehold system", nothing could have been done, said one of the commission members..

The report suggests that clergy with freehold are presently disciplined unofficially, because of the inadequacies of the law. One of the main instruments in this is a semi-official blacklist kept at Lambeth Palace, of clergy who should not be employed for one reason or another. The commission proposes that clergy whose names are on this list should in future be told of their status and of the reasons for it.

As well as the changes to the court system that Canon Hawker's commission has proposed, it also suggests changes to the laws governing clergy conduct. New offences are to be introduce to cover doctrinal and liturgical errors, and there is to be a new scale of punishments, ranging from warnings to defrocking. However, the warnings under the new system will be much more effective than under the old one, since a breach will be prosecuted as contempt of court.

Canon Hawker denied when the report as launched that it would put excessive power into the hands of bishops. He said the new arrangements transferred much of the responsibility for the prosecution of cases from the bishops to independent inquirers (who would be retired police officers or similarly qualified laymen) and that they guaranteed greater fairness for clergy accused of misconduct.

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