“Guidance on Contested Heritage issued by the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England [in 2021] emphasizes that it is of particular importance to the Church that its buildings should be welcoming to all, and that any symbols of injustice and sources of pain that they may contain are acknowledged and addressed“.
So noted Hodge Ch. in Re Removal of a Commemorative Plaque for Safeguarding Reasons  ECC Oxf 9[*] in his determination on a petition to remove an unauthorized commemorative plaque from within a church.
Restoration of window
The preface to the judgment indicates that the window is “a prominent, four-light tracery window in the south wall of the nave”; a letter from the petitioner to the Archdeacon stated that the deceased former churchwarden’s family had paid for the repair of the window when he died, and asked if the family could put a plaque underneath to commemorate his years of service as a churchwarden.
The plaque is to record that the window was restored in the memory of a local farmer who died in his late 80s in the middle of the first decade of the current millennium, having lived and farmed in the parish all his life and having served as churchwarden for over 60 years .
It was clearly indicated to the family that a fixed plaque was not possible as this would require faculty authorization; it had been suggested that they have some sort of commemorative plaque which could be put on a moveable stand. Without the agreement or knowledge of either the PCC or the then incumbent, the present slate plaque had been cemented on to the window sill and presented as a fait accompli .
Background to safeguarding concerns
In March 2023, the Archdeacon of Dorchester wrote to the PCC informing them that he and the Diocesan safeguarding team had been alerted to concerns regarding the dedication of the repair to one of the church windows. The dedication was to a former churchwarden, now deceased, who had been convicted of sexual abuse in the 1950s, the story having been previously reported in a local daily newspaper.
The Archdeacon strongly recommended that the PCC first approach any local family members before applying for a faculty, which would be required even if a faculty had not been applied for to install the plaque in the first instance . Both of the former churchwarden’s children said that they were unaware of the safeguarding situation with their father, and were understandably very upset. The daughter did not want the plaque to be returned and indicated that it should be destroyed .
On 24 July 2023 the DAC issued a Notification of Advice recommending the proposed removal for approval by the court, and advised this it was unlikely to affect the character of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest . When the petition was presented on 31 July 2023, it recorded that the request for a faculty had come from the Diocese . Public notices were displayed and no objections were received to the petition. . Hodge Ch. was satisfied that the deceased’s children, as the owners of the plaque, had been consulted and had not withheld their consent to the faculty; consequently, the formal requirements of S66 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction and Care of Churches Measure 2018 (the EJCCM) had been satisfied .
Following receipt of the petition, Archdeacon provided the court with a copy of the newspaper report that had alerted the safeguarding team at the Diocese to the deceased’s conviction for sexual abuse. This dated from the mid-1950s, when the deceased was in his mid-thirties; and the headline records that a local farmer is “to have treatment”. This comprehensive report, suitably anonymised and with appropriate redactions, is reproduced at .
Analysis and conclusions
On the undisputed evidence and consistent with the advice from the DAC, Hodge Ch. was satisfied that the proposal would cause no harm to the significance of this church as a Grade II* listed building of special architectural and historical interest . The commemorative plaque was introduced into the church without a faculty, and its installation, therefore, was unlawful under ecclesiastical law. Having been introduced into the church, albeit unlawfully, it became subject to the faculty jurisdiction, and a faculty was required for its removal.
Had the unlawful nature of the plaque’s introduction to the church come to light within six years of its installation, the court might have made a restoration order requiring the removal of the plaque under S72 EJCCM; but such a course was time barred by S72 (5). Although the six year limitation period is suspended where any fact relevant to the bringing of proceedings for a restoration order has been deliberately concealed from the Archdeacon, here there was no evidence of any deliberate concealment: the plaque was there in plain view to anyone visiting the church . The Chancellor further noted:
“. Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, some old convictions and cautions are deemed spent after a period of time, which varies according to the nature of the offence and the sentence of the court. A sentence of three years’ probation from the mid-1950s would normally have become spent many decades ago. However, for the purposes of work with children or vulnerable adults, the effect of the Exemptions Order 1975 (as amended) is that no offence is considered spent. As explained at paragraphs 8.2 and 8.3 of the document from the 4th Archbishop’s Council entitled ‘Protecting All God’s Children’, 4 Edn (2010), it is rightly the policy of the Church of England that anyone who puts themselves forward for roles in the Church which involve, or could involve, working with children or vulnerable adults, and who has received a positive, blemished, or unclear DBS check, should undergo a risk assessment from a suitably qualified person, the nature of which should be proportionate to the matters disclosed…
…Since, according to the plaque, the deceased had served as churchwarden for 63 years, his initial appointment as churchwarden would presumably have pre-dated the need for any DBS (or CRB) checks, or any safeguarding assessment. It is not clear when he ceased to serve as a churchwarden, but this must have been before the middle of the first decade of the present millennium, when he passed on”.
Having read the contemporary newspaper report of the hearing, (presumably at Quarter sessions, almost 70 years ago) the Chancellor expressed a feeling of some disquiet at the basis for the faculty petition :
“By pleading guilty to all four charges against him, the deceased acknowledged his guilt. Even at the time of his conviction (on his own pleas of guilty) the deceased continued to be held in high regard by his village community. He presumably served out his sentence of three years’ probation satisfactorily; and there is no evidence that he ever again fell foul of the law, or engaged in any further incidents of sexual abuse or misconduct.
From the chronology, the deceased must already have been a churchwarden at the time of his conviction and sentence; and he continued to serve as a churchwarden for many decades thereafter. Many, many times, in this church, the deceased must have been invited to repent of his sins; to have responded by saying the general confession; and to have heard the priest pronounce absolution from his sins.
From the attitude of his fellow parishioners, there is every reason to think that, like Zacchaeus (Luke 19, 1-10), the deceased felt, and showed, true repentance, change of heart, and change of behaviour. “For the son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Whilst the Church rightly takes sin seriously – and sexual offences against young children are amongst the most heinous of sins – no-one is beyond redemption; and the exercise of just mercy is the metewand, or yardstick, by which we ourselves will all one day be judged”.
However, since in their discussion of the Archdeacon’s letter, the PCC was unanimous in its agreement that the plaque should be removed as soon as was practically possible, the Chancellor was satisfied that he would therefore grant a faculty for the removal of the plaque as sought. However, as noted at paragraph 30 of his judgment in Re St Nicholas, Kingsey  ECC Oxf 5 – albeit in the very different context, a faculty is precisely that: it is permissive, and it does not have to be implemented; and certainly not at once.
He left if for the PCC to decide whether, and when, to implement the faculty, within the time constraints imposed by the court. The PCC should feel free, no doubt in consultation with the Archdeacon, to decide, in the light of the observations in this judgment, whether or not they should implement this faculty. For this purpose, he allowed 12 months for the removal of the plaque. If it is removed, it would be subject to the condition that it is to be offered to the deceased’s children before it is disposed of by the parish.
[*] The Chancellor gave an anonymised judgment in order to protect the privacy of anyone who might be affected.