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A Letter from Westminster Abbey

November 2001

Remarkably, Wesley Carr is approaching the end of his fifth year as Dean of Westminster. Despite all the odds and numerous scandals he has clung to office. Much has been written about each. Perhaps now is the moment to draw some of the threads together, to examine the totality of his tenure, and ask how he has managed to engineer his survival when any ordinary mortal who behaved as he has would long ago have resigned or been eased from office.

At the root of Carr's remarkable survival lies one factor - his ability to influence his colleagues and subordinates and either bring them round to his point of view or at least enforce their acquiescence. Given the intellectual calibre and track record of at least some of those people, and the bankruptcy of some of the notions he has sold them, it is a remarkable achievement indeed. Let us recall two examples: hoary old chestnuts they may seem, but they still merit further examination.

First, the Neary affair. Whatever the other rights and wrongs of the business, one fact that can no longer be disputed is that the Nearys' financial involvement with the Choir occurred with the knowledge and acquiescence of the man responsible at the time, the former Canon Treasurer Colin Semper. So how on earth did this not come out at the Jauncey hearing? And why did the then-canons line up at that hearing to condemn the Nearys, with whom they had formerly been friends and colleagues?

Carr's technique was subtle and brilliant. He already knew that Semper was ready to accept responsibility for the whole debacle - the former canon had written to him at the outset. But Semper was a sick man and Carr was ready to exploit every advantage. It would be quite improper, argued his team, sniffing their onions, to subject the ailing Semper to the rigours of a full hearing (in actuality never more than Jauncey, the appellants, the respondents and a handful of lawyers and scribes.) And so it was agreed: Semper would be seen by Jauncey with just the minimum deployment of counsel and court officers, in a less formal setting. The Nearys were advised that it would be inappropriate to attend under such circumstances. Then, at the last minute, Carr played his joker; he insisted on attending, although he certainly had no more reason to do so than the Nearys. The result was as he surely predicted; Semper, with the Nearys absent and Carr monitoring his every nuance in a much more intimate environment than a tribunal room, and frail as he undoubtedly was, became tongue-tied and inarticulate. He allowed himself to be tripped by the Abbey's clever counsel, apparently contradicting himself. Colin Semper, the renowned and silver tongued former broadcaster and raconteur was reduced to an unreliable witness, a sick man whose testimony was confused and inconclusive.

And why did the canons turn against Neary so vehemently? One after another, first in their uncannily similar written statements and then before Jauncey, they declared that they would not accept the organist back whatever the outcome of the appeal. And, of course, that outcome was to become self-fulfilling, for an irreconcilable breakdown of trust was itself grounds for dismissal.

How on earth had such a breakdown occurred before the appeal had even been heard? Quite simple. Carr and one other canon, the bad-tempered Michael Middleton, had conducted the Nearys' disciplinary hearing in private. Carr formed his own conclusions and then presented them in black and white terms to the three remaining members of Chapter for their endorsement: the Nearys were guilty. He omitted to mention Semper's letter or a single word of the Nearys' response. Take this exchange from the appeal transcript, between the Nearys' senior counsel and Canon Donald Gray, referring to Carr's briefing to Chapter following the disciplinary hearing:

Elias: "Did anyone say 'What exactly have the Nearys said about this matter?'"

Gray: "I cannot recall that particular detail. I do not recall that question being asked, no."

Carr, it emerged, had presented Chapter with a bowdlerised report of the proceedings of the hearing against the Nearys but filed a complete version, which would of course be seen by the Nearys, for the court bundle. The Nearys' counsel cross-examines Canon David Hutt, now Sub-Dean:

Q. Were you aware that there were two reports?

A. I am aware that there were two reports, yes.

Q. You are aware now. Were you aware that there were two reports at the time when you made your decision to dismiss?

A. I was not.

Carr blamed his lawyer for this extraordinary subterfuge. Some time after the Jauncey appeal that same lawyer was rewarded with the post of Abbey Legal Secretary, and with it all the trappings of Collegiate membership. The lawyer notwithstanding, the conclusion cannot be avoided: Carr set out not to present even-handed evidence to Chapter and allow them to draw their own conclusions but to persuade them to adopt his point of view and then paint themselves into a corner over the ensuing months.

So to the second example, the Choir School, where the problems continue despite the sacking of the headmaster. In just three years every single member of the teaching staff has resigned or been dismissed, a record that would be dismal in a 'failing' state school; for it to happen in a small prep school full of bright children, class sizes of seven and highly supportive parents should ring major alarm bells.

It is worth recalling that Carr has an unhappy record in his relationship with musicians and in his governance of schools. In his previous incarnation as Dean of Bristol he dismissed the organist/choirmaster for alleged offences that were not publicly revealed, drafting the man's letter of "resignation" for him and then warning other cathedral deans not to employ him. To their credit, another cathedral, having conducted an exhaustive enquiry and finding no case to answer, did eventually employ him and he has enjoyed a distinguished subsequent career. When Carr did the same to the headmaster of Bristol Cathedral School the Headmasters' Conference, Carr having roundly snubbed their emissary, was so incensed it withdrew its recognition of the school. Predictably, Carr persuaded the school governors to endorse both these sackings without proper enquiries; the members of that governing body have been unsurprisingly reticent about their role in such obvious injustice.

The situation at Westminster was different in one important respect. The headmaster was Carr's own appointment, his favoured candidate after he rejected at interview a shortlist chosen by others prior to his arrival in post. The man he chose was an authoritarian in his own image; he unfortunately shared other characteristics with Carr which, where children are involved, are not so easily dismissed as foibles of personal style. When parental complaints began and multiplied during 2000, Carr tried to dismiss them as trivial or even as attempts to undermine him.

What was remarkable was the reaction, or rather lack of reaction, from the school's governors. This secretive body comprises Carr as chairman, the four Canons, and five lay people. Among their number is no less a figure than the Headmaster Elect of Eton College. It must have been evident to them at a very early stage that all was not well, and that events had occurred that were, by any modern standard, entirely unacceptable in a boarding school. They did nothing. Moreover, they appeared to support the Dean, who instigated a risible 'independent' investigation into one major complaint, conducted by his own right hand man, the Receiver General. Even when Carr published his conclusions without consulting the Governors (when challenged on this he hastily corrected the omission after the event by disclosing selected evidence to them) not one publicly disowned him, still yet resigned. The school doctor was made of sterner stuff; when Carr rejected his concerns at the number of pupils with stress-related symptoms and had the gall to question his professional competence he (and his entire practice) resigned without ceremony.

It was only the intervention of the Social Services department, with their statutory powers, that finally persuaded Carr that the game was up. Their report, even after Carr's efforts to dilute its content, unambiguously revealed the headmaster as a serial bully. The headmaster was dismissed. Even then, Carr attempted to dress it up as a voluntary resignation 'for personal reasons' and sought personal vindication by helping the man into a new post. According to a press report, never denied by Carr, the former headmaster's new employer claimed Carr had assured him that the man was not a bully, he had not been sacked, and that the social service report had been wrong. Pity the former headmaster's new pupils and staff.

So, in just two of numerous examples, we have a picture of a man who prevails in the face of all logic and good practice, even in institutions with notional consensus governance. What clues can we find to explain his extraordinary ability to persuade colleagues of apparent intellect and probity to accept courses of action that under other circumstances they would certainly reject out of hand?

One thread in particular demands closer attention; Carr's close links with the Tavistock Institute. This apparently august organisation promotes the psychoanalytical study of groups, a subject in which Carr professes to be an expert and has published prolifically. What is less well known is that the Tavistock Institute is also one of the world's leading repositories of expertise in psychological warfare and the manipulation of opinion for strategic ends. They were pioneers of the technique that became known as brainwashing. This much is fact. Inevitably, in the shady world of the security services it is difficult to probe much further without confusing fact and fantasy - and certainly a wealth of wacky conspiracy theories link Tavistock with sinister plots to create a New World Order that seeks to control all our minds. We can be sure that the spooks relish such nonsense as it makes it easy to dismiss any genuine insight into their work as absurd speculation. What is less easy to dismiss is Carr's undoubted expertise in persuading intelligent people to accept that which, in other circumstances, they would regard as unconscionable. It is chilling that a man who openly specialises in such manipulation also pursues a career as a minister of religion.

It is not only Carr's colleagues who have been subject to his special manipulative skills. Those who have crossed him vouch that he employs similar techniques in dealing with those he views as opponents. There have been numerous reports from abbey employees, volunteers, choir school parents and external professionals of Carr's subtle and intimidatory techniques. He often chooses grandiose formal surroundings such as (at Westminster Abbey) the venerable Jerusalem Chamber or the ancient Chapter Office meeting room, wears full clerical finery when it is patently neither necessary nor appropriate, and sits when possible with his back to the window, with an expanse of table between him and his 'opponents'. Even in less formal circumstances he has been noted choosing a higher chair for himself than for his guests.

Carr is a master at controlling the conversation. He will use a variety of techniques to sidestep uncomfortable questions or topic areas he wishes to avoid - declaring a topic a diversion from the agreed subject of the meeting, disrupting the meeting to summons a colleague, or deploying an arsenal of conversation stoppers: "the matter is closed", "are you doubting my word?", "we made that decision on advice from others", "that decision is for me and me alone", "that is confidential", "it is Chapter policy", and when all else fails "I am not prepared to discuss that". Throughout the past four years, when he has faced many challenges from journalists and others, he has never been prepared to enter into an open-ended polemic about his activities; on the rare occasions he has defended himself publicly he has done so in print or in lectures without taking public questions. His major public lecture "Whence and whither in another millennium" justifying his behaviour over the past few years invited questions - but in writing to his press officer!

Another favoured Carr technique is the ambush. He will choose a time and situation to deliver accusations against a target when they are entirely unsuspecting and unprepared. There will be no advance intimation of his intent, and it allows him to press home his advantage whilst his victim is still in a state of shock. He consolidates that advantage by having a ready-prepared solution: "if I have your immediate resignation this matter need go no further", presenting a mirage of reasonableness and even magnanimity. (A similar technique is practised by crooked timeshare salesmen: "unless you sign now this once-in-a-lifetime special offer will lapse, permanently") He appears still to be at a loss as to why this technique failed with the Nearys, declaring long after the event, apparently without irony, that "…it is a fundamental principle in legal matters to negotiate and the Dean and Chapter affirmed the Christian dimension by negotiating longer than is usual (for three days) in order to allow Dr and Mrs Neary to retire gracefully." As Carr said at the Jauncey hearing: "We expected Dr and Mrs Neary to come back to us on the Monday, having thought about it, and we would then be able to follow things through" That they regarded themselves as innocent and did not want to retire prematurely in disgrace apparently did not enter his calculations.

Carr will sometimes delegate the delivery of such bombshells; if it all goes pear-shaped it makes it much easier to distance himself. It is notable, for instance, that when the time eventually came to sack the headmaster of the choir school Carr left others to do the dirty work for him.

A high-risk, but to date effective, strategy is to reduce disputes to binary terms. The victim makes a claim, Carr rejoins to his colleagues with a very personal, polar contradiction, ensuring that it is impossible to lend credence to the claimant without implicitly accusing the Dean of lying. The notion of 'balance of probability' as a test of the victim's case is thus neutered; any balance that disfavours Carr is tantamount to disloyalty to him and to the Abbey. With the exception of the Neary dispute, where he was left with no option, he has ensured that all disputes have been 'resolved' internally. It is little wonder that Carr has spoken out against the Cameron recommendations with their central proposal for a detached and, one hopes, impartial supervisory body.

But let us return, finally, to Carr's portfolio of techniques in respect of his colleagues and subordinates. One can only speculate whether it is by chance or design that he has appointed a disproportionately high number of people with vulnerable aspects to their characters. It is puzzling, for example, in view of the number of homosexual staff members Carr inherited, that such an uncompromising puritan should appoint (or attempt to appoint - some have turned him down) several more, and particularly in the choir and school departments.

Secrecy is another weapon. After the Neary debacle which, to be charitable to the Abbey, arose out of some of the management not knowing what others were up to, Carr promised a new era of openness. In fact the very opposite has happened. Information on things that matter is strictly controlled; enquiries about Chapter decisions, the reasons for premature departure of staff or even the names of the Choir School Governors and the dates of their meetings are met with refusals or obfuscation. What has increased umpteenfold is the flow of propaganda, such as annual reports peppered with photographs of Carr and 'motivational' bulletins for staff full of self-congratulatory twaddle produced by the grand-sounding "Assistant Receiver General - Communications". (This same man gives seminars to fellow PR practitioners on the brilliance of his handling of the press coverage of the Neary affair; one certainly cannot fault his chutzpah.)

Carr has always been very well aware of the power of knowledge, and is careful to ensure that people are told as much or as little as he deems appropriate. The effect of this is that it makes it very difficult even for his colleagues and senior staff to challenge his decisions; impossible for outsiders. An example was his 'independent investigation' into allegations of bullying against the choir school headmaster. The complainants were never allowed access to first-hand evidence such as interview notes or even the names of witnesses; Carr simply wrote saying that the matter had been investigated most thoroughly and stating his (both specious and libellous) conclusions that the children were at fault. The parents were left with no option but to withdraw their sons, leaving Carr free to claim that he had been vindicated - a strategy which would have succeeded had not the (genuinely independent) social services team fortuitously been inspecting the school shortly after the incidents, revealing the truth.

A useful control mechanism over colleagues is the "painting into a corner" technique mentioned previously, successfully deployed on a number of occasions. It is simple but effective. By giving colleagues an incomplete or subtly distorted account of a set of circumstances, Carr implants a set of suppositions in their minds. He then manoeuvres them into taking a public stand based on those suppositions - in the Neary case, for example, the other members of Chapter wrote to the Times supporting Carr on the basis of what subsequently proved to be a highly partial account of the disciplinary hearing. The success of this technique relies on the colleagues not having the moral fibre to change their publicly-expressed stance once they learn the full story, afraid that to do so would be regarded as disloyalty to the Dean.

In all the above, one theme persists; Carr's astonishing ability to persuade otherwise decent, intelligent, perceptive colleagues that black is white and the world is flat. Ask them to defend themselves? "That matter is closed", "it is Chapter policy…", "you should address that question to our Legal Secretary". They will take on their adversaries at awkward times and places - in the Abbey after a service, for example. They will plead confidentiality, insufficient knowledge or personal non-involvement. As Admiral Fisher put it: "Never explain. Never apologise".

They have learnt well at the feet of their master.

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