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Christian research centre admits to mishandling sexual assault claim from staff member

by Tola Mbakwe
OCMS building.jpg - Banner image
Photo Credit: Motacilla - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS) has said it could have handled a sexual assault allegation from one of its former staff members more appropriately.

Since 2018, OCMS, an independent Christian mission research centre based in Oxford, has been embroiled in an incident between two former members of staff. The way in which OCMS handled the situation triggered them to request an independent review by safeguarding organisation GCPS which has recently been published.

The review found that OCMS’s refusal to apologise, decision to discipline the staff member who reported the assault, as well as the way in which the person she accused was dismissed, among other things amounted to an unsatisfactory response.

The incident

On 28th October 2018, a woman named in the report as AA employed by OCMS, told the executive director (ED) of the organisation that a sexual interaction between her and another employee occurred outside working hours and outside the workplace. She was clearly distressed when she spoke about the incident that happened two days prior but said it was consensual. However, a few days after the event and after having time to reflect, she believed she was manipulated and abused by the man and parts of the interaction were not consensual. According to the report, AA and the man both claim to be victims.

Mishandling of the incident

The ED told AA to go to the police and get checked out by a GP. She filed a police report and saw a doctor who confirmed she had suffered bruising on her chest and arm during the encounter.

However, on 30th October, AA and the man were both informed they would have to undergo a disciplinary process due to an “unwritten expectation of high moral standards precluding sex outside marriage in a Christian organisation such as OCMS” and because “lapses would damage the organisational reputation”.

After a police report defined what happened to AA at “aggravated assault”, OCMS then later changed her disciplinary hearing to an investigative interview to determine if a disciplinary process was necessary. In the interview, she talked about manipulation, abuse and the absence of consent. But later sent a “confession email” to the ED outlining seven ways she felt she sinned in relation to OCMS. Following this, the ED chose to continue with the disciplinary process and suggested she sexually assaulted the man because she kissed him on the neck.

OCMS also interviewed the man and later dismissed him for Serious Misconduct, rather than Gross Misconduct. In a letter to staff informing them about the man’s departure from OCMS, ED expressed regret, “deep love… and huge respect” for the man.

Reconciliation hardships

AA later dropped her police case against the man because of difficulties in persisting with prosecution, among another reason that has been redacted from the review report. She then sent a solicitor’s letter to OCMS asking it to stop the disciplinary process, expunge the records from her file and allow her to return to work. OCMS complied.

Despite this, on 3rd December 2018 AA informed OCMS of her desire to resign, but said she still hoped for reconciliation and a return to work at OCMS.

Following this, the ED told AA that he felt that he could not give her an apology in how he handled events after the incident because he was following advice from a solicitor and thought he had done the right thing.

After an agreement drafted by AA’s solicitor, she agreed to go back to work in January 2019, but resigned soon after seeing the man’s photograph remained on the OCMS website and he was still supervising students online. AA and OCMS pursued mediation, but their attempts failed. AA later began an Employment Tribunal on the grounds of sex and discrimination, which ended in February 2020 with a financial settlement and confidentiality agreement for both parties, but didn’t stop AA from telling her story in anonymised terms.

Refusal to apologise

Triggered by revelations of abuse and assault within the Ravi Zacharias organisation in February 2021, AA wrote to OCMS asking for an apology for her how situation was handled and for reconciliation between her and the organisation. She also asked to be released from their confidentiality agreement, but then later said that she didn’t think reconciliation would be possible.

While, AA claimed there were other people who fell victim to the man, the review report said that the majority of people who they spoke with regarding this “did not fit the remit of the review”.

Due to limited response from OCMS, AA parked her car outside the EDs house and played loud music. She later apologised in an email for her “weird behaviour”.

After her father wrote to the OCMS board for a review and an apology, the organisation agreed to a review, which led to the GCPS report, but refused to make a public apology until the review was concluded.

AA has been contacting organisations engaged with the man or those that have offered him employment accusing him of being potential safeguarding risk.

Changes for the better

The report concluded that “OCMS initially responded to the incident in a compassionate and supportive way, but the subsequent move to addressing a potential break of unwritten rules of conduct, together with poor legal advice in relation to the employment law issues, led to a confused approach where the organisation at the same encouraged AA to get medical support and report the incident to the police, but also commenced disciplinary action”.

It also said that substituting a Christian ethos for a clear code of conduct, AA’s unmediated return to work in January 2019, retaining the accused man as a supervisor, and a poor understanding of the concept of victim blaming among other things compounded the issue.

It added that more than one interviewee suggested there was a culture of discrimination against women at OCMS and some faculty has poor attitudes toward women.

It also said AA “felt she has been blamed for what happened and OCMS focused on how best to mitigate the potential reputational damage”.

The report added that the man has been largely remote for the follow-up … but has also reported major impact on his life and employment opportunities.

It recommended that OCMS made a series of changes to prevent mishandling such incidents the future. They include having clear and rigorous procedures for recruitment, considering the possibility of exploring external mediation, considering whether there is scope for any sort of apology, having interactive safeguarding training for management and staff, as well as training on receiving and handing reports of concern.

OCMS said in a statement: “The trustees of OCMS have carefully considered the review and completely accept the observations and criticisms set out in the review. The trustees are fully committed to ensuring that they learn from the points raised in the review and will be undertaking the suggested ‘lessons learned’ exercise to reflect on the findings and consider how to implement the recommendations.

“These actions are additional to the steps that OCMS has already taken, over the four years since the incident, to improve processes and procedures regarding safeguarding. In consultation with the charity commission we have already made a number of important changes.

“The trustees and all those involved on behalf of OCMS acknowledge that the organisation’s response to the concerns brought to us could have been handled better and we would like to apologise that this compounded the distress of the original incident for the individual involved.

“The case reviewers have recommended that OCMS explore mediation with the individual involved, which we are keen to do. We have therefore offered mediation and are very willing to meet with the individual along with the assistance of a specialist mediator who can assist us with reconciliation in relation to this difficult matter. The aim would be to promote mutual understanding and help the individuals involved to move forward.”

From AA

AA told Premier Christian News: “GCPS’s review was only commissioned by the Board of OCMS after I sought the support of some well-known Christians.  I should not have had to do that.  My cries to be seen and heard and for justice and accountability and reconciliation should have been enough. It shouldn’t be necessary to wait until a Christian organisation feels they’ve run out of excuses or can’t ignore the victim anymore before the right actions are taken. I feel like I had to drag the Board to the table. It took over three years to convince the OCMS Board and Leadership team that this review was necessary.  Why was my voice not enough? Why was my pain not enough? Three years is a long time, and it’s been an excruciating wait, which has dominated much of my life.

“I was pleased to see that GCPS's report highlights very well that this was not just a safeguarding issue about one isolated incident of abuse.  The report makes it clear that the abusive incident and following failures to care for me after it did not occur in a vacuum, but in a culture of systemic issues within an institution; issues of white male privilege, of victim blaming, of ignorance about power dynamics, of unequal access to power”.

She added: “I hope the wider church can learn that we must put people before institutional reputations.  The measure of a Christian organisation should not be how cleverly worded PR statements are to distract people from the truth - but how well it treats the least amongst us. If a woman or man or child is abused in your organisation, nothing matters more than how you treat that person - minimising abuse and failing to thoroughly investigate it to try and save face and money is an evil, worldly practice that we must excise out of Christian culture for good.”

Premier Christian News contacted OCMS for a statement, but was told it has nothing to add to the statement on its website.

The review report names the man involved in the incident as BB. Premier has not been able to contact BB due to his anonymity. AA contacted Premier, which is why she was able to be quoted.

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