The Church of England has found a vicar guilty of spiritually abusing a teenage boy, after putting him under “unacceptable pressure” during intensive prayer and Bible-study sessions in the boy’s bedroom.
In the first judgment of its kind, a C of E tribunal found that the Revd Timothy Davis, the vicar of Christ Church, Abingdon, in Oxfordshire, was guilty of misconduct under clergy disciplinary measures.
The ruling was published on Monday as an online survey found that two-thirds of 1,591 respondents said they had personally experienced spiritual abuse.
The survey, carried out by Bournemouth University for the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), a safeguarding charity, identified key characteristics of spiritual abuse as coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture, and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behaviour”.
The bishops’ disciplinary tribunal for the diocese of Oxfordshire said that Davis was guilty of “conduct unbecoming to the office and work of a clerk of holy orders through the abuse of spiritual power and authority”. There was no suggestion of any sexual contact.
According to the 20-page judgment, Davis, who is in his 50s, became a mentor to a 15-year-old boy, named in the judgment as W1, in 2011. Over a period of 18 months, Davis “engaged in mentoring so intense that W1 was put under unacceptable pressure having regard to his age and maturity and was deprived of his freedom of choice as to whether to continue”.
It added: “Under the guise of his authority [Davis] sought to control by the use of admonition, scripture, prayer and revealed prophecy the life of W1 and/or his relationship with his girlfriend.”
During the 18 months, Davis moved into the family home, and engaged W1 in prayer and bible study for two-hour sessions in the boy’s bedroom. The vicar also went on holiday with the family.
W1 described being mentored by Davis as “awful” and all-consuming, but did not feel able to challenge the priest. He told the tribunal that Davis became angry if he did not ring him or respond to texts.
W1’s mother, who worked at the church, also felt unable to challenge Davis because he was her boss and had made it clear that God wanted his mentoring of W1 to continue. She told the tribunal she “was scared of going against God”.
Davis told the panel that he was “shocked and confused” about the allegations, and had “no idea of the effect I was apparently having”.
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Clergy guidelines acknowledge the power that priests can have over others, and state such power must not be used to bully, manipulate or denigrate. Clergy should never seek to remove autonomy from a person, nor should power be exercised inappropriately, the guidelines say.
Davis was suspended by the diocese of Oxford in July 2016. A psychiatrist told the tribunal he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in September 2016.
In a statement, the diocese of Oxford said: “Abuse of spiritual authority and power falls far short of the obligations and duties of those in holy orders. Clergy are in a privileged position of trust in their congregations and communities …
“The findings of the tribunal show that, sadly, Tim Davis betrayed the trust of everyone involved in a youth-mentoring programme at Christ Church, Abingdon – none more so than the young man and his family, who offered their home and hospitality to him.”
A penalty will be imposed at a later hearing.