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Friday, June 24, 2022

Christ Church students condemn Dean for comparing his experience to the Holocaust

Charlie Hancock reports on the student bodies’ response to an article written by the suspended Dean of Christ Church.

Charlie Hancock
Charlie Hancock
Charlie is reading Human Sciences at Hertford College. After working as a News Editor and Deputy Editor, she was co-Editor in Chief with Jill Cushen for HT22.

CW: The Holocaust, antisemitism, sexual harassent and assault.

The Junior and Graduate Common Rooms of Christ Church have condemned the College’s suspended Dean – the Very Reverend Martyn Percy – for a blog post in which he invoked imagery from the Holocaust when describing the criticism he has received.

The blog post has since been removed, but Cherwell has seen a downloaded copy. Titled The Red Triangle, the post’s contents describe Percy’s feelings of alienation and the lack of support he feels he received over the course of his dispute with Christ Church. He repeatedly invokes imagery of the deportation of victims of the Holocaust, and the symbols they were forced to wear in concentration camps.

The embattled Dean has been at the centre of a protracted dispute with the College since 2018. Starting after he questioned the College’s pay structure after finding out he earned less than other heads of colleges, the disputes have led to Christ Church being described as “virtually ungovernable”. Percy was suspended in 2018.

He was also accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the cathedral sacristy by stroking her hair while they were alone. The former police officer the College appointed to investigate the complaint described the complainant as “credible”. However, Thames Valley Police decided that there were no charges to be brought against Percy. The Church of England also said it would be “entirely disproportionate” for the case to be brought before a church tribunal.

Supporters of Percy have said that he was the victim of a “black ops” campaign, and was being victimised for his efforts to reform the College. In The Red Triangle, Percy says that since 2018 he has been subjected to a “public impugning of [his] reputation, and personal attacks resulting in severe trauma and life-changing injury”. He continued: “I am expected to live and act as though I am a convicted sex-offender, and subjected to draconian restrictions that would have raised eyebrows had I been a paedophile on bail.”

In his post, Percy appeared to draw parallels between his situation and the system of coloured shapes the Nazis used to categorise and identify prisoners in concentration camps. 

Percy said his experience has “given [him] a tiny taste of what it may have been like to be forced to wear the red triangle that the Nazis made political prisoners wear on the streets, and later in the camps”. He went on to say that his “persecutors” wanted him to wear a “red triangle of the inside [sic] of [his] jacket” so that “[he] can always know [he is] sub-human”. 

‘Sub-human’ is the English translation of the German word ‘untermensch’, which the Nazis used to refer to non-Aryan people whom they considered to be inferior. The word predates this usage, but was repeatedly used in speeches and writings by high profile Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels. Alongside Jewish people, the word was used to refer to Slavic people, Roma people, people who had physical and mental disabilities, and people of colour, who were targeted for extermination during the Holocaust.

When describing what he claims is a lack of support from the Bishop of Oxford, Percy appears to have compared the Bishop to a German citizen who did nothing to stop his neighbours being persecuted. He wrote that he “wondered what such a Bishop would have done when political enemies of the government were being hounded, harassed, victimised and stigmatised by his Nazi neighbours, going onto say that as “the train wagons are being loaded up with all of the Bishop’s recently evicted neighbours”, the Bishop would promise to keep in touch, but would not get “curious” about why he did not receive any letters from “the camps abroad”.

Railway networks across Europe were used by the Nazis to deport Jews and other victims of the Holocaust to concentration, extermination, and forced labour camps across the continent. The journey was often fatal: train carriages were overcrowded, and neither food nor water were supplied.

Percy says that he was “not comparing himself to a victim of Auschwitz” before referencing Nazi classification systems and methods used to deport victims of the Holocause. The JCR and GCR disputed Percy’s claim, saying: “it is clear that by invoking the Holocaust in reference to himself, there is some intention to draw a parallel”.

A joint statement from the two common rooms said: “The JCR and GCR are both adamant defenders of the natural rights of freedom of thought and speech, and these impart the right to condemn actions which we find to be offensive. As a JCR and GCR, we find this rhetoric abhorrent. 

“Attempting to draw a parallel between the Holocaust and the investigation regarding the Dean trivialises the suffering of victims of Nazi persecution. Martyn Percy’s essay is deeply offensive to all groups targeted by Nazi persecution, including the Jewish community, the Polish community, people with disabilities, people of colour, and the LGBTQ+ community, groups to which the Dean refers in his essay. 

“We condemn the Dean’s rhetoric in this essay in the strongest possible terms, as well as any other language on the Dean’s website which marginalises minority groups on the basis of characteristics including neurodivergence. Notwithstanding investigations relating to the Dean, the JCR and GCR explicitly express a view only with regards to the language used in essays by Martyn Percy, especially ‘The Red Triangle’.”

The common rooms encourage students who have been affected by the contents of Percy’s essay to reach out to welfare support. “Our shared goal is to build a community where people of all identities are safe and supported,” they continued.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Oxford, of which Christ Church Cathedral is part,  told Cherwell: “The article posted on Martyn Percy’s personal website is a misappropriation of the Holocaust and is unacceptable. Whatever his complaints about an investigation of a sexual harassment complaint made against him, the Dean should not compare it to genocide. We fully acknowledge the complexity and pain of the present situation for the Dean and the complainant also. Despite his claims otherwise, significant support continues to be provided for all of those involved. Meanwhile, the ongoing legal processes must be allowed to take their course, and Dean Percy remains suspended from cathedral and college duties. We are glad to see the link to the article has now been removed from his website.”

A spokesperson for Christ Church told Cherwell: “Martyn Percy is currently not carrying out his duties as Dean of Christ Church. Christ Church cannot comment on ongoing disciplinary processes but is keen that they are dealt with as speedily as possible, in fairness to the accused and to the complainant.

“We have been made aware of comments made by the Dean in a recent article, and the subsequent reaction to them, including amongst our student community, whose open letter captures the essence of the problem with Martyn Percy’s text. While Christ Church supports free speech, it strongly condemns any potential breach of the Equality Act, especially where it creates a hostile, alienating or offensive environment for other members of Christ Church, or in the wider University.”

The Very Reverend Martyn Percy, and the Oxford University Jewish Society have been approached for comment.

Resources for learning about the Holocaust can be found online at the Holocaust Educational Trust

Oxford Nightline is open 8pm-8am, every night during term time, for anyone who’s struggling to cope and provides a safe space to talk where calls are completely confidential. You can call them on 01865 270 270, or chat at oxfordnighline.org. You can also contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, by calling 166 123 or emailing [email protected].

The Oxford University Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service can be reached by emailing [email protected] and offers free support and advice to any student at the University who has been impacted by sexual harassment or violence.

OSARCC is also available as a free support service which is distinct from the University.

It Happens Here can serve as an unofficial and informal point of contact for students with any concerns about the issues discussed in this article. 

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