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A Letter from Westminster Abbey
June 2000

Wesley Carr and his cronies still hope (and perhaps believe) that it is simply a matter of time before all the problems at Westminster Abbey are quietly forgotten, the press lose interest, and sweetness and harmony rule again.

How wrong they are. And what perverse death wish still drives them to fuel the flames of suspicion, mistrust and antipathy? Look at two recent events.

First, there is the announcement that Dr Carr is suffering from Parkinson's disease, an unfortunate affliction which, if diagnosed in most people, would elicit shock and sympathy. Instead, the Abbey's clumsy handling of the news has evoked further suspicion and puzzlement, and not a little shadenfreude.

Parkinsonism is an incurable and degenerative condition which affects the sufferer's ability to control muscular movement. Carr has shown typical symptoms for at least two years, and more than one medically qualified observer has voiced suspicions subsequently confirmed by this announcement. But the statement sent out by the Canons and Receiver General was odd, to say the least. It announced that Carr had been diagnosed just three weeks after his installation, prompting inevitable speculation, since the symptoms of Parkinsonism do not manifest themselves overnight, that the diagnosis could equally have been reached before the installation had a specialist been consulted at that point. Then we read that Carr kept it secret from his colleagues for two years and his employer for a further year. Are we meant to infer nobility of spirit in the face of personal adversity, or was he simply concerned that he would be hustled into retirement before he was ready for it? Perhaps oddest of all is their final sentence, suggesting that the Abbey will be strengthened as the result of this news. What can they mean?

Inevitably, the news of Carr's condition has intensified speculation about its effect on his activities. The medics tell us that Parkinsonism per se only affects muscular control, not the sufferer's mental capacity or other faculties. But the knowledge of any serious, degenerative disease almost inevitably affects a patient's behaviour, and in unpredictable ways. Of course, the paradox in Carr's case is that he has a history of bullying spanning two and a half decades, so he does not need the excuse of serious illness to explain his more recent exploits.

The second recent incident is the issue of The Decorator.

Following a tip-off, a national newspaper decided to investigate a rumour that Carr had used Abbey staff to decorate his private house. During their enquiries, a regular Abbey sub-contractor agreed that he had carried out work and had billed the Abbey, not the Carrs themselves. The paper put this evidence to the Dean, who refused to comment and referred them to the Abbey press officer. The following day, Saturday of a bank holiday weekend, the press officer was asked to comment.

Since the story was untrue, as the Abbey eventually asserted, one would have expected their denial to be immediate and unambiguous. Instead, they summoned a legion of accounts staff from their homes, the holiday notwithstanding, who then spent several hours examining their accounting records in minute detail before issuing the denial. What on earth were they looking for? In the meantime, the sub-contractor telephoned the newspaper to explain that it had all been a mistake; he had misunderstood the question and had in fact never carried out work at the Dean's private home. The issue was made no clearer by the Abbey's press statement issued later that day, which denied that any decorating work had been carried out at the Dean's home by anyone, least of all an Abbey sub-contractor. This was puzzling in view of alleged comments by Mrs Carr to an acquaintance about the decorating work that they had carried out.

Once again, with his usual sure touch at stoking controversy, Dr Carr posted a public notice in the Abbey common room thanking staff for giving up their holiday to help handle a "major press enquiry".

Then, inevitably, we come to the Neary affair which, whilst by no means being the only subject of discord in Dr Carr's tenure, brought his antics into public focus.

It must now be clear that if the Neary appeal were heard afresh today there would be no question of their losing. Lord Jauncey's conclusions, in any event considered bizarre by many in the light of the evidence upon which they were based, centred on a handful of key issues.

First, did the Abbey know about, and therefore condone, the Nearys' financial management of the choir's extra curricular activities? Some witnesses said yes, others no. Lord Jauncey concluded that the Abbey had had the opportunity to know, but because they never troubled to enquire, and the Nearys did not volunteer the details, the Nearys were culpable. Now new witnesses have confirmed, with explicit detail on time and place, that a senior member of Chapter confided before the Neary case ever arose that he was aware of their independent financial arrangements.

Then there was the vague yet apparently axial charge of 'lack of openness'. Such a charge must always be a matter of relativity. What constitutes reasonable openness? Where better to look for guidance than the activities of Dr Carr. We now know that at the time of the appeal he was concealing from the public, from his colleagues and from his direct superior, Her Majesty the Queen, a medical condition that undoubtedly had an impact on his ability to do his job. Rather worse, in view of the fact that the charges against the Nearys involved money, it emerges that the Dean also failed to reveal that he himself had borrowed 45,000, unsecured and at an advantageous interest rate, money from a trust of which he was the senior trustee. To compound this breach of openness, when the Abbey published their summary accounts the loan was not mentioned; hardly appropriate behaviour for a man who made such capital out of a lack of openness in others. The latest revelation that Carr's right hand man, Canon Michael Middleton, has also borrowed from the Abbey is as much an indication of the arrogance of these men as of their insensitivity.

Then there is the trickle of information about the Jauncey hearing itself. How a key defence witness gave his evidence in private with Carr, at his own insistence, in attendance, but the Nearys persuaded not to attend. How evidence emerged that Carr dragooned the support of his Chapter against the Nearys by feeding them a bowdlerised report of the disciplinary hearing, excluding their entire defence. How a raft of evidence was produced that showed the Abbey and the adult singers happily received cheques from the Nearys but swore on oath that they were unaware that the Nearys ran the choir finances. And there was evidence that did not emerge: one charge inexplicably upheld against the Nearys was that Mrs Neary received payment for work already compensated in her salary. We now find that the Abbey were accepting additional fees from the Neary account payable to the Precentor and Choir School Headmaster for their attendance on tours, despite their being salaried Abbey employees.

Many observers who read the judgement were astonished at Lord Jauncey's conclusions. Those who are closer to the case and know what really happened realise that this was not simply a matter of an arbitrator getting it wrong; there was a determination by the Abbey to nail the Nearys come what may. So far it has succeeded.

No-one involved with the Abbey today can describe it as a happy place. Amongst the congregation rumours and whispering abound. A blazing row between the Receiver General and Carr was public knowledge within hours. The PR department makes desperate efforts to butter up the press, taking journalists to lunch and feeding soft stories, meanwhile putting out bulletins of such risible awfulness they are almost self-satirising.

The Choir School is in a poor way; although the Headmaster has his admirers, others despise his small-mindedness and control freakery. One parent describes the school as being run along 'Borstal lines'. The Headmaster and senior matron are barely on speaking terms, and a recent ISI report identified a number of weaknesses. His latest target is the Choir School Music Fund, a parent-led independent charity that has become a de facto parents' association; the Headmaster is determined to neuter it and already interferes far beyond his remit.

Meanwhile, the Choir School Governors are a secretive body, comprising the Dean & Chapter and five outsiders. When one member sadly died last year no mention of it was made to the parents, still less an acknowledgement of her service. The parents have in the main no idea who the Governors are, although one is a current parent. There is speculation about who will replace her later this year. It is most unlikely that parents will be consulted; despite efforts by other parents to secure an election, the present incumbent was appointed as a fait accompli. It can be argued that it is in any case an irrelevance as the Governors appear simply to rubber-stamp the Dean's wishes.

The announcement earlier this year of the Headmaster's engagement to a current parent has raised some eyebrows, and it is remarkable that the puritan Dean has been so accommodating. There is speculation that the Headmaster has ambitions to install his new wife as the parent governor presumably with a five year tenure as her second son has recently been accepted by the school.

Dr Carr's end-of-year letter contained the boast that not a single issue had required a vote in Chapter during the year. It is entirely typical of the man's insensitivity that he should crow about this record. He clearly regards it as a badge of unity. Those who know him and have seen the way he runs committees know that it is simply a record of the way he bullies or hoodwinks those around him to adopt his point of view: the Neary case is just one such example.

The Cameron report later this year is eagerly awaited. So far Professor Cameron and her panel have played their cards very close to their chests, and there are legitimate fears that the report will be a whitewash. However, a raft of extremely damning statements has been sent to them in response to their public call for submissions, and there is anecdotal evidence that they have made a significant impact.

There is some frustration amongst those who are still fighting daily for a proper and just outcome at Westminster Abbey. Politicians, the press, senior churchmen and others are, inevitably, less vocal since the Neary problem was ostensibly resolved. There is talk of a parliamentary debate, but quite when no-one seems to know. However, there remains a surprisingly large band of dedicated Abbey supporters (for that is what they are, even if Carr and Co regard them as opponents) who continue to battle on.

There is a huge amount of damage to be repaired, and it will only happen when Carr goes and a completely new broom can come in and clear up the mess. Since his appointment, there have been whispers that Canon Tom Wright is the new Dean in waiting. The jury is still out on whether he is the man for the job; he has undoubtedly been tainted by his association with the Carr regime.

Pray God the moment to decide comes sooner rather than later.