A recent case considered by the Bishop’s Disciplinary Tribunal for the Diocese of Southwark addressed the issues resulting from a priest’s use of the “like” function on his Twitter account. In view of the widespread use of social media by those subject to the Clergy Disciplinary Measure (CDM), the case provides a salutary warning to those who use social media, and to those currently reviewing the CDM, it raises questions regarding its use in this and other similar cases.
The Respondent, the Reverend Mike Todd, faced a charge of conduct unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders within Section 8(1)(d) of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 because he had “liked” tweets on Twitter that contained sexually explicit and/or offensive photographic material and had thereby shared them publicly. The complaint was that he had “liked” images of a naked male on four occasions between 1 May and 3 July 2019 . It was evident that the person whose tweets he had “liked”, AR, was a friend of his who lives some distance away and whom he “follows” on Twitter .
Consideration by the Tribunal
Nature of the tweets
The first question that the Tribunal had to determine was whether the original “tweets”, within the terms of the charge, contained sexually explicit and/or offensive photographic material. The Tribunal was unanimous in the view that the tweets showed nudity, including genitalia, with hashtags describing and highlighting that genitalia. It concluded that the images were highly likely to be considered sexually explicit by those who viewed them, and highly likely to give rise to the risk that they would cause offence to those who came upon them inadvertently. The “tweets” therefore contained images which came within the terms set out in the charge .
The Tribunal did not accept that these photographs fell within the description of naturism as set out in the documentation before it – “the emphasis on the genitalia [suggested] otherwise…The gender of the person photographed matters not.”
“Retweeting, liking or any interaction with any sexually explicit images, by someone clearly identifying themselves as a priest, would have given rise to the same concerns. We concluded these were not naturist photographs. There is some discussion, particularly by the Respondent, in the papers of the relationship between naturism and Christianity. In the light of our findings in relation to the photographs, it was not relevant to our decision to consider this” .
The Respondent’s use of Twitter
- The Tribunal noted the position of the Respondent’s Twitter account: he had a substantial number of followers; it was clear that the Diocese followed him, and he followed the Diocese; it would have been open to him not to accept the Diocese as a follower and regulate those Twitter users who followed him ;
- The Tribunal took into account that the photographs were “liked” rather than “replied to” with commentary or “retweeted”. A “retweet” might indicate a higher level of desire to share a tweet .
- The Tribunal was satisfied that the respondent “liked” the photographs, and did not dispute the fact. It did not find that this was an action which was designed to cause any particular offence or that the respondent intended anyone in particular to see it or gave any thought to who might see it ;
- “The consequence of the Respondent liking these images was that those who followed him would be exposed to those images without any action being required on their part. This gave rise to a real and substantial risk that those who would consider the images sexually explicit and be offended and upset by those images would see them” ;
- “The fact that the Respondent went ahead and took this risk amounted, in the judgment of the Tribunal, to misconduct in that it was a priest, who describing himself as such on his Twitter account, was exposing others to the risk of being exposed to images that they might find both sexually explicit and offensive” .
Determination and Penalty
The Tribunal noted that the allegation relates to four photographs within a relatively short time frame and that there was no evidence that there has been any repetition since the allegation was made. However, it did not accept that these were simply images of naturism and considered this was post-action justification, “which in some ways supported the conclusion of the Tribunal that this was negligent as opposed to intentional misconduct, an act of folly on the part of the Respondent” .
In concluding that the actions of the Respondent amounted to misconduct, the Tribunal noted Canon C26 Of the manner of life of clerks in Holy Orders. It did not consider that the Respondent’s risk-taking demonstrated compliance with his obligation as a priest to frame his life as a wholesome example to others . Reference was made to Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy, in particular paragraphs 2.17, 10.1, 11.2, and 11.11, (at , , , and  respectively).
“. These Guidelines were properly set out within the witness statement of the original complainant, the then Archdeacon of Southwark, because they set out an appropriate caution about and a template for the use of social media. Social media is a hugely useful tool both for ministry and for personal communication, but it is fraught with risk. The guidelines note that risk and require clergy to exercise appropriate caution.”
The Tribunal concluded that the failure of the Respondent to act appropriately in respect of his social media in “liking” the relevant images on Twitter with no thought as to who might be exposed to them amounted to conduct which was unbecoming or inappropriate to the office and work of a clerk in Holy Orders within Section 8(1)(d) of the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003. .
“. The Tribunal accepted the submission that a rebuke was the appropriate penalty. The Tribunal did not consider that an injunction was required. The Tribunal noted the short period of time over which the incident had taken place, *the age of the allegation, it now being 2 ½ years old, and the absence of any evidence of repetition. It was concluded that no requirement to undertake additional training was required”.
The Tribunal concluded by expressing its concerns about the haste with which proceedings were initiated and the absence of engagement before proceedings were started. References were made by witnesses to matters about which the Tribunal could not be provided with full details and could therefore form no part of its deliberations. “However, this aspect of the process remains regrettable and it is to be hoped that the conclusion of these proceedings will lead to active re-engagement between the parties” .
We have reviewed Twitter’s use of “likes” in our post Twitter “likes”, “retweets” and “replies” on 17 February 2022.
David Pocklington and Frank Cranmer