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Charity watchdog warns Oxford college over cost of feud with ex-dean

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The UK’s charity watchdog has issued an official warning to one of Oxford university’s best-known colleges for spending millions in a high-profile dispute with its former head.

The Charity Commission on Thursday said Christ Church had failed to properly manage its resources as it revealed the college had spent £6.6mn in legal and public relations fees in a dispute with its former dean, who left this year.

The rebuke resurrects a damaging four-year feud that has drawn in the Church of England and raised questions about governance of a college that educated 13 British prime ministers.

Helen Earner, the director of regulatory services at the Charity Commission, said the “long and protracted” disagreement “risked undermining the reputation of Christ Church and harming wider trust in charities”.

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Martyn Percy, who was appointed dean of Christ Church in 2014, agreed to step down in February as part of a £1.2mn settlement. Sparked by his request for a higher salary in 2017, the dispute turned into a bitter and drawn out legal battle when Percy was accused of sexual harassment by a young woman, which he denied.

Earner said it was not the regulator’s role to “take sides” but said it needed to act to “ensure that charities are governed effectively” and demonstrated sound financial oversight.

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“We consider that the actions of the trustees at Christ Church amount to mismanagement and/or misconduct, after they failed to manage the charity’s resources responsibly,” she said.

Martyn Percy, former dean of Christ Church © Greg Blatchford/Shutterstock

The Charity Commission first intervened in the dispute between Percy, then a Church of England priest, and the college in 2020, instructing both parties to enter into a formal mediation process.

The following year, the commission requested the trustees provide it with a breakdown of the cost relating to the dispute and how they were managed. It said on Thursday that this had not been provided “in a timely manner”. The commission added that the trustees had not set a fixed budget to cover the dispute and had retrospectively approved the majority of the £6.6mn in costs.

The commission found the college had categorised the costs as “other direct costs — teaching, research and residential”, a decision the watchdog said had the potential to mislead.

The college defended the failure to set a budget, arguing Percy had “behaved in a way that maximised the costs and other damage” and made it difficult to predict how much it would spend.

It said costs were incurred as a result of Percy’s “refusal to settle with a governing body which had lost trust and confidence in him”.

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Christ Church said it would continue to work closely with the Charity Commission to implement recommendations including a governance review.

Percy, who has since announced he is to leave the Church of England, said those responsible for mismanagement or misconduct should be held to account. “This is a devastating finding against a charity that was clearly out of control,” he said.

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