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Top historian criticises St Mary’s for ‘grotesque’ treatment of professor

By on Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A leading Catholic historian has denounced events at St Mary’s College Twickenham as “grotesque” and resigned as an honorary fellow.

Professor Eamon Duffy, in a resignation letter to Principal Philip Esler of St Mary’s University, expressed his dismay at the suspension of a member of staff and raised concerns about its Catholic and Christian ethos.

In a letter dated September 18, referring to the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, Professor Duffy wrote: “The grotesque incident yesterday, when a senior member of staff was interrupted in the course of a lecture and forcibly escorted from the premises, is for me a decisive sign that things have gone badly amiss with the Christian and Catholic ethos of St Mary’s.”

The letter continued: “When I was made an honorary fellow of the college in 2003 I was delighted to be associated with a distinguished Catholic institution which for over a century and a half had contributed so much to Christian education in this country, and which seemed to be adapting to changing circumstances with fidelity and imagination. In the face of recent events in the College I no longer feel that confidence, and I therefore ask you to take whatever steps are necessary to remove my name from the list of honorary fellows of St Mary’s.”

Professor Duffy was also critical of the plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts. He wrote: “I have been unable to see how the demotion of one of the most successful and prestigious of the college’s schools can be justified on any but the bleakest financial grounds, all the more so because the high profile of theology in the college has been a signal to the outside world of its continuing commitment to the historic mission of St Mary’s in promoting Christian education.

He continued: “That the merger has been pressed on at great speed in the face of so much strong opposition from staff, students and informed commentators has been for me a cause of growing disquiet.”

Dr Robin Gibbons, who lectures in theology at the college, has also resigned following the controversy. Dr Gibbons said that he was resigning from St Mary’s College “on the grounds of conscience.”

Dr Anthony Towey, meanwhile, issued a statement this afternoon through his lawyers. Steel and Shamash Solicitors said: “Our client, Dr Towey, is dismayed and disappointed at the action taken by St Mary’s University College in suspending him and the public statements issued by St Mary’s following his suspension as Head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History.

“Our client believes that he has been suspended unfairly, that he has been victimised and that his academic reputation gained over 25 years has been publicly damaged. In addition, there appears to have been a failure of due process.

“Through us, Dr Towey is exploring all the legal avenues that are open to him in order to seek the appropriate redress. Dr Towey has the full support of his union.”

Following the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, St Mary’s College released a statement which said: “We can confirm that Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, was suspended yesterday pending investigations into a very serious disciplinary matter and a grave breach of his professional duties at the University College.

“This action was taken fully in accordance with our internal human resource procedures and with written, external legal advice. Arrangements are being put in place to ensure that all programmes and teaching will be fully covered.”

It has since emerged that the serious “disciplinary matter” was an email that Dr Towey sent to students in August but which senior management did not find out about until last week.

The email from Dr Towey expressed concern about plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and stated: “Since the principal specifically invites comment…it may be appropriate to raise any concerns with him or with Bishop Richard Moth, the chair of Governors. As an inter-disciplinary team, no school has worked harder to create a sense of learning camaraderie where staff and students ‘know each other by name’. It is a tremendous sadness that this sense of community is being dismantled.”

Following a board of governors meeting on Thursday evening, Bishop Moth released a statement endorsing the college’s plans to merge departments. He said: “At a meeting of St Mary’s University College Governors last evening it was decided to go ahead with the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Catholic Theology and to implement the merger of the Schools of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and Theology, Philosophy and History into a new School of Arts and Humanities.

He continued: “The governors expressed regret over the actions of certain individuals, both those associated with this institution and those whose identity remains unknown, who have been maintaining a campaign of misinformation leading to a distorted picture of recent events.

“St Mary’s continues to be committed to providing research-based high-quality teaching in theology and religious studies. This is reflected in buoyant student recruitment in this area and across St Mary’s. Our relationships with collaborative partners are very important to the life of St Mary’s and our long tradition of service to the Church will continue to be at the heart of all we do.”

A group of students has also mobilised to voice their opposition to the merger and has organised a petition which carries over 200 signatures.

About 50 students attempted to hold a peaceful protest outside the board of governors meeting on Thursday evening.

  • Charles

    Catholic educational institutions are self destructing in the US & UK; this is either because their leadership does not believe in Catholicism anymore or because they are incompetent managers or both. The purpose of Catholic education is to promote a deep understanding of Catholicism. We must question the motives of educational leaders that don’t do this and we must speak out against the self destructive behavior of leaders of institutions such as Georgetown or St. Mary’s that sabotage the very purpose of the institution itself.

  • Herman U. Ticke

    1000-odd words and I am no wiser.
    No doubt a helpful commenter will enlighten us all as to what
    really went on.
    A very large effect from a very small cause 
    something not being reported here.

  • Patrick_Hadley

     No wiser? Perhaps, but you are better informed.

  • Lucy

    ‘Fr’ Ant Towey is an ‘ex’-priest who according to Canon Law should not be functioning in any Catholic position due to his status. Fr Ant a liberal, has also openly rubbished the magisterium of the Church when lecturing to his students.

    It is well known that the new person in charge at St Mary’s is trying to inject orthodoxy into the College. I welcome him in his efforts. Professor Duffy obviously doesn’t appreciate the facts of the matter. St Mary’s like Roehampton is bastion of liberal theology and needs urgent attention. I welcome the efforts to restore the St Marys to what she should be, a voice for truth in these dark times. 

  • Lucy

    No doubt the Tablet will be all over this soon, to put their own ‘spin’ on this.

  • HoraceWalpole

    More orthodoxy. Just what the College needs. Perhaps Towey (along with the vast majority of the academic and administrative staff and students standing with him) should be burned at the stake to provide some light in ‘these dark times’. Or perhaps a bit of decent, Christian understanding and tolerance for opinions not shared by an incompetent and dishonest senior management would better serve all concerned.

  • Lucy

    Horace your emotional ad hominem about stake burning and tolerance really aren’t going to help the matter. The fact is that St Mary’s is a Catholic University and as such has an obligation to abide by canon law and the Catholic magisterium.  If Fr Ant Towey doesn’t like it, then it is his fault for joining the staff at St Mary’s as he knew that it was a Catholic institution when he applied for the post.  If he wants to disagree with Catholic teaching which is completely within his human rights, as it is yours, then he should have applied for a post at a Protestant uni or even a secular one. It would be like a Catholic joining a Muslim uni then complaining when they teach on Muhammed. Christianity is love based on truth.

  • Juliet

    Your comment doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t about being priest or not, it’s about respect, about love, about people. God will never judge if you were ex priest or not, quiet silly your coment.

  • Juliet

    No one has the right to treat any one as Towey was treated. Esler must go, Moth should go to confession and punish himself.

  • Shaun

    Can you please cite the relevant canons? You haven’t done so thus far. 

  • teigitur

    Very well said.

  • Heathmarie77

    Firstly, have you ever been present in one of Anthony’s lectures? Because, I have and can tell you from experience that he is a devoted and faith-filled Catholic which shines through in his teaching.
    Secondly, the new person in charge, who you seem to regard so highly… If you are referring to Esler, then perhaps the sort of ‘orthodoxy’ that he is supporting is similiar to that of the Medieval Church; a time of cruelty and corruption all in the name of a higher good.
    St. Mary’s does need urgent attention. Keep Calm and Save SMUC!

  • HoraceWalpole

     St Mary’s is not a university, it is a university college. The longstanding desire to achieve university status has now been put at grave risk by the behaviour of the senior management. It is also a PUBLIC institution, funded almost in entirety by the taxpayer and answerable to public oversight. Fewer than 25% of the students are Catholic, and even less of the faculty. The Theology department – it is not a school but a department within a School of Theology, Philosophy and History – is very small, and constitutes a tiny element of thel greater College. Everything the institution has been and represented, its very positive reputation, is now threatened by the senior management. Most of the Theology department are outraged and incensed by what has happened. Your views do not reflect any element at the College other than, perhaps, the Principal.

  • Anon

    The merger proposed by the Senior Management Team was proposed and finalised in the space of three weeks without any proper consultation with the students and that is why the students organised a petition of over 400 signatures along with a peaceful protest at the board of governors meeting. The way in which the students and staff have responded should have been a warning sign for plans to go back to a consultation stage or at least to slow them down. Anthony Towey wrote an email to the students. An email. Nothing more. Nothing less. Apparently this calls for an interrupted lecture and two security guards escorting you off campus. They way the students and staff have been treated is nothing that resembles even slightly resembles liberal, orthadox, or any other type of Catholicism. 

  • Concerned Simmie

    I am a practising Roman Catholic studying at Theology at St Mary’s. I have thoroughly enjoyed Dr Towey’s lectures, which have not been ‘liberal,’ and would like to point out that he primarily teaches Biblical Interpretation not Catholic Theology. 

    I would agree that the the Catholicity of the College is being damaged, but by the un-Christian actions of Senior Management not troublesome liberals. 

    We are losing love and trust here at St Mary’s, we need your prayers now more than ever

  • Anon

    Yes very well said indeed. 

  • Benedict Carter

    The usual liberal libel against the millions of faith-filled Catholics of the one thousand years of the Middle Ages. 

    You partake in the new “Whig” myth – that the Medieval Church was “cruel and corrupt”. 

    What do you think of the modern Church? I’ll tell you: under the fist of the liberals and Modernists, it is cruel, oh so cruel. 

    But only to Catholics. 

  • waltersandson

    “the Medieval Church; a time of cruelty and corruption all in the name of a higher good.”

    And you expect to be taken seriously? 

  • Heathmarie77

    This thread is getting out of hand, which is understandable because this is a subject that many are very passionate about. Traditional vs. Liberal Catholicism is not the issue at St. Mary’s. The outraged staff and students are upset over a complete lack of consultation and the disrespect that the senior management team (SMT) has shown both staff and students.

    Regardless of whether we label ourselves as being ‘liberal’ or ‘orthodox’ in regards to our faith, we can all, I hope, agree in the principles of truth, justice and love. This is what the SMT is stealing from SMUC.

  • Parasum

     “In a letter dated September 18, referring to the suspension of Dr
    Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History,
    Professor Duffy wrote: “The grotesque incident yesterday, when a senior
    member of staff was interrupted in the course of a lecture and forcibly
    escorted from the premises, is for me a decisive sign that things have
    gone badly amiss with the Christian and Catholic ethos of St Mary’s.””

    ## So what happened ? The article is written as everyone knows who or what or when or why or where  Dr. Towey is, and as though everyone is well-informed about this incident. Believe it or not, but some of us are have never heard of either item. Which means that some info on both would not be out of place.

    And what kind of insect might “Bishop Moth” be ?

  • Benedict Carter

    Sounds like St. Mary’s has got out of hand. If indeed this story is evidence of a liberal retreat, then three cheers.

  • Matthew Roth

    Canon law doesn’t cover this, actually. Rather the document each laicized priests receives does. He can’t teach theology or related disciplines, anywhere.

  • Matthew Roth

    Yes He will…if someone who was ordained leads the faithful into error, they are committing a much greater sin than someone who is a layperson. St Teresa of Avila said something to the effect of that the road to hell is paved with the skulls of bishops and priests. Leaving the clerical state is not a sin, but scandal caused by an laicized priest is a big deal, since only a laicized priest can be guilty of certain things related to sacraments, and a laicized priest teaching something to the effect of heresy always gets attention. 

  • Matthew Roth

    That is theology…he should not be teaching it, unless he can demonstrate to the faithful through the public presentation of documents that the CDF-or the Holy Father, I’m not sure which one-granted a dispensation from his restriction on teaching theology and related disciplines in seminaries, universities, and colleges (colleges of the American variety).

  • Anon

    It’s not. It’s evidence that a valued member of a university, greatly loved and respected by staff and students alike, was treated like a criminal for sending an email. It’s evidence that, with or without intending to, the Senior Management Team excluded the students from decision making at the university and have lied concerning the changes in the process. Whether the university was Catholic or not, these things are unacceptable.

  • Anon

    We are yet to received a reason why Anthony Towey was suspended. Even he has yet to receive any written confirmation of why he was suspended which goes against every rule in the book. Hardly sounds like the scandal has come from Towey himself.

  • Anon

    And I’m sure that there are bigger scandals for the church to worry about than an “ex” priest sending an email. 

  • Anon

    Many people are still in the dark because that’s the way that Senior Management want it. 

    Basically, the Prinicpal proposed a merger of two schools in the unviersity, the school of Theology, Philosophy, and History, and the school of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts. He wants to merge to schools into a school of Arts and Humanities. 

    Although at first this doens’t sound like that much of a big deal, the way in which it was implemented meant that it went through as “reserved business” with a handful of Governors, not all of them. When Academic Board expressed a wish to vote on whether they agreed with the merger or not, the principal would not let them. 

    The “Consultation” period that was offered to the two schools was only three weeks, and there was a huge amount of opposition from both sides. The principal replied to this opposition by going ahead with the merger anyway. 

    Dr. Towey sent an email to the students before the Senior Management Team had informed them of the merger stating that he didn’t know what would be happening over the next few weeks and that if students wanted to know more or express any concern they might want to contact the principal or the chair of governors at St.Mary’s Richard Moth. Two weeks after this email had been sent, and when Dr. Towey had been in his office all day, security marched into his first lecture of the semester and told him he was being suspended and was no longer allowed on campus. The students had no idea what was going on. The way it was handled was disrespectful to say the least. This is why Duffy has given up his fellowship. 

    The students are not protesting about Dr. Towey’s treatment but about the merger in general as Senior Management are yet to enter into a consultation with them about it. 

  • An “ex” priest.

     You’re wrong there. It is not an outright ban on teaching. A local bishop can give permission but that is only necessary when it comes to Catholic institutions. A priest who has received his dispensation can teach theology in a public institution. 

  • Martin

    Maybe those who regard Professor Esler as a pillar of Orthodoxy should consider his personal behaviour towards young female human beings, both students and staff. Four female students are considering making complaints against him having been treated in inappropriate physical ways, as are at least two current / ex members of staff. Photographs of him behaving lasciviously with the (now ex) assistant chaplain have appeared on facebook and are being shown to bishops. He has a history of similar behaviour at both St. Andrews and the AHRC.

    However, the key issue is that the SMT at St. Mary’s have resorted to bullying tactics. The problem is not just Philip Esler but the far nastier Janine Griffiths-Baker (deputy principal) and her side-kicks have created a culture of fear that does not reflect any Christian values. (Janine is not Christian and leaves her son, born out of holy matrimony, in Wales during the week.) The excellent teacher and strong defender of Catholicism that is Anthony Towey is not the only person to have been forced out. The University College is currently without a Chaplain, Director of Alumni, Registrar, Director of Finance, amongst many other roles for this reason. Over ten staff are taking legal action against the University College for unfair treatment.

    Moving forward Philip Esler and Janine Griffiths-Baker have to go. Neither promote Catholic values and both are bullies. A pastoral team needs bringing in to repair the enormous damage done to the university college. Fr Michael Hayes (ex deputy Principal), Professor Duffy and Professor Bamford should all be approached to rescue this once great Catholic institution. Anthony Towey needs to be reinstated to continue his excellent work teaching the faith and the Bishops and CES must urgently overhaul the governance of the institution before the QAA respond to the many complaints they are receiving about this sordid affair.

  • Martin

    The Catholic Herald seems to have an odd view of censorship when a post considering the personal behaviour of Philip Esler and Janine Griffiths-Baker is removed and yet nasty personal comments about Anthony Towey, an excellent Catholic teacher, are left up.

  • M B Karamba

    Lucy, you do understand that Dr. Towey’s intentions are that the institution continue to promote the Catholic faith and theology. You seem to think the opposite.

    Since when does security men taking a man out of a lecture, putting him in a van, together with this bicycle, driving him home and standing outside his home until he hands over a mobile phone, constitute what any sane person might expect from signing up to work in a Catholic institution?

  • M B Karamba

    Not sure you’ve either love or truth in what you say.

  • NewMeena

    So the United Kingdom is “blessed” with a tax-payer-funded something that seems to be an aspiring Catholic university. That will be surprising and disturbing news for some.
    The ill-feeling and domestic turmoil that is common in Catholic schools, according to teachers and some others I know, seems to have spread a little up the age-range.This college lies in 97th place down the list of UK universities for students starting in 2013. Let us not worry too much about it.Much more important is the question of how we have almost ended-up with a state funded Catholic university.

  • HermitTalker

    Not fully aware of all the facts, but I wish to comment that in the USA President BH Obama had a Stimulus Bill and an Health Care Bill rammed through Congress. Combined several thousand pages, not time to discuss or debate by the People’s elected officials. Democracy does take a beating these days sadly

  • Adsum

    Eamon Duffy has taken a principled step – Catholic institutions and leadership at various levels appear to be more and more arrogant, arbitrary and paranoid in their decisions and attitude.  There is a hardening ‘rightest’ frost affecting the Church generally which is stifling the warmth of the Spirit and its expression of the love of Christ.

  • Anon

    One also notes that the merger will create a Centre for Catholic Theology where none currently exists. Blessed John Paul II said that every Catholic University should have an institute of theology. At present St Mary’s has only a small arts and humanities school in which Theology is merged with Philosophy and History. The merger, and consequently the established Centre for Catholic Theology, will bring St Mary’s into accord with Papal teaching.

  • Guest

    Perhaps, but then again one recently saw a link on St Mary’s website showing a detailed report of the consultation with students… Might it be that they believe consultation means nothing less than a right of refusal? Lord of the Flies doth ominously spring to mind!

  • Suresh kumar

    Thanks for your grateful informations, this blogs will be really help for Students news.

  • teigitur

    ” Ill feeling and domestic turmoil common in Catholic schools”. Ah, so thats why they get such good results and are over-subscribed, all over the country. Here was I thinking they were just good, well run schools, that many of our non-Catholic neighbours try to send their children to.

  • teigitur

    It certainly does have a very strange moderation “policy”

  • M B Karamba

    That consultation was at a meeting which was held after the decision had been made by a sub-committee of governors. Admittedly it was a few days before it was finally ratified by the full governing body.

    Don’t know about Lord of the Flies, but Pius IX springs to my mind (if my history is correct). I understand that he greeted bishops arriving in Rome for Vatican I with the question “and what do you think about my infallibility?” Would that be consultation?

  • HermitTalker

    Thanks, so happy to read that. As I noted, do not have all the facts-spent a lot of years as journalist and some as part-time professor of Humanities. GET THE FACTS, double check them is a good  operating principle for all of us. Messy, as is DEMOCRACY and being ROMAN CATHOLIC but it sure beats the alternative!

  • Amelia

    This is a perplexing report. Surely the governors of St Mary’s have voted on and approved the merger and its process? By my understanding Academic Boards have no voting rights in decisions of restructuring, nor does the student body. This is often because governors are in a position to take the longer, objective view, and furthermore they may have access to information that is confidential. I’m sorry if you have indeed lost a teacher, but this seems a lot like normal management proceedings to me. 

  • M B Karamba

    Goodness, heresy or something to the effect? I must read the e-mail again and revisit my studies. Obviously some changes in orthodox Catholic teaching must have occurred since I was last in theology lectures.

  • M B Karamba

    I understand that the Academic Board asked merely to express a collective opinion as information for the Governors. This was ruled out by the Chair – Prof. Esler, the Principal . I hear that he also refused to accept a vote of no confidence which was proposed and seconded after the expression of collective opinion was not allowed. I’m not sure that that would be normal management proceedings.

  • NewMeena

    ” Ill feeling and domestic turmoil common in Catholic schools”. Ah, so thats why they get such good results and are over-subscribed, all over the country. ”

    This is because they are socially highly selective. (This topic has been dealt with before on CH).

    Your own Archbishops are attempting to change this, against a strong back-lash of vested and odious middle-class self-interest.

  • Amelia

    Yes indeed, a collective opinion as information is different. The comment above does say a vote however; the distinction is rather important! It depends on the university’s constitution but if such votes are against it, and by comparison with elsewhere they probably are, then I’m afraid that very much is correct management. It rather sounds like St Mary’s is getting a strong shake and introduced to the real world, I shall pray for it!

  • NewMeena

    “The idea of a university” in the modern age is somewhat different from that in the past.

    A recent Master of Trinity (Cambridge) talked of a university of today being, of course, a place where new knowledge is sought – but also somewhere to question the “knowledge” that we THINK we already have. 

    A place quite unsuited to Catholicism. 

  • M B Karamba

    Amelia, thanks for your obviously informed comments. I’m not sure how it would be possible to ascertain collective opinion without some form of people being asked if they are for or against the proposal. Perhaps if the name ‘straw poll’ had been used it might have been o.k.

    Even if a vote was not binding constitutionally some would feel that an expression of opinion from the Academic Board may genuinely be of assistance to the Governors when they came – later – to discuss the proposal.

    Could you shed some light on the no-confidence procedure please? I thought that such a procedural motion took precedence over other business and had to be acted upon – or is there a legal cat flap?