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From: The Sunday Times Sunday 4th February 2001

Westminster Abbey choir in crisis as head faces charges of bullying

WESTMINSTER Abbey is facing a shortage of choristers after a troubled six months at the school which supplies boys for the choir, writes Christopher Morgan.

Four of the abbey's 24 choirboys have been withdrawn by parents, who accused Roger Overend, the choir school's headmaster, of "psychological bullying and erratic behaviour". Three other families are considering withdrawing their sons and sources expect just a handful of boys to turn up at a voice trial this Wednesday.

The controversy, blamed by many parents on Overend, began in July when a boy was expelled. The complaints came to light in September, when parents of a boy aged 11 claimed he was made to leave his bed late at night to walk to the school library, where the headmaster shouted at him.

A parent of one of the withdrawn boys said: "My son was routinely reduced to tears and in the first incident was reduced to an emotional wreck." A seven-week internal investigation followed further complaints from parents. The abbey would only say publicly that Wesley Carr, the Dean of Westminster, had taken "appropriate action". Overend was not subjected to a disciplinary hearing. After the investigation, two other boys were withdrawn when Carr told a father not to discuss his views of the school's staff with one of his sons or with journalists. By coincidence, Westminster social services were conducting a routine four yearly inspection at the time. A draft report is believed to have been prepared, but not yet publicly released.

In 1998, the abbey was at the centre of a bitter conflict after the dean and chapter sacked Martin Neary, the abbey's organist of 11 years, accusing him of financial irregularities. The sacking was upheld, but the dean and his canons were awarded a "gamma minus" by Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle, appointed by the lord chancellor to resolve the dispute. Last week the abbey denied a shortage of choir recruits and said: "The headmaster has accepted that his action was ill-judged. What has been central to the investigation and to any adjustments the governors may make is the welfare of the boys." Additional reporting: Joe Perry

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