I’m the real victim here, says vicar who was told to apologise for bullying choristers

·3 min read
Catherine Relf-Pennington - Wymondham Abbey
Catherine Relf-Pennington - Wymondham Abbey

A female vicar accused of bullying choristers has claimed she is the victim of sexism and an “immoral'' campaign against her after a bishop ordered her to apologise.

The Rev Catherine Relf-Pennington, 64, alleged that the Bishop of Norwich, the Right Rev Graham Usher, had taken the side of "a small circle of white, wealthy, strongly interconnected men" rather than supporting his own clergy.

The vicar has been accused of bullying a choir at a 12th century church and in November was ordered by her bishop to apologise to everyone who complained about her.

String of complaints

She has faced a string of complaints about her supposed “authoritarian style” since taking on her role at Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk, four years ago.

They include claims that she assaulted a chorister after banning her from the choir and reversed her truck into a parked car in the car park, causing a “six-inch-long gash” before driving away.

The vicar has previously argued she was bullied by the choristers, who were “anti-woman priests”.

However, the vicar launched an extraordinary attack on her bishop, accusing him of conducting an "unethical, immoral and self-serving" campaign against her.

The accusations were made in a 12-page broadside claiming that she and her wardens have been the victims of “false allegations, delays and threats, and unremitting criticism of a church community doing its best in very difficult times”.

In response, a diocese statement on Monday said the vicar had a legal duty to comply with the bishop's directions and failure to do so could lead to disciplinary action for misconduct.

It said that the bishop notes the response from the vicar and her churchwardens to his directions published in November, after the formal visitation to the parish during 2021, following “a number of concerns relating to the ministry of Wymondham Abbey”.

It said: "As yet, a number of the bishop's directions remain to be complied with, and he will be working to ensure that these matters are properly addressed. The bishop is very keen to resolve matters in Wymondham for the benefit of the whole community."

Deeply felt division of opinion

The row dates back to a few months after the vicar was appointed in 2017, when 37 complaints were made against her alleging inappropriate behaviour, all of which she denied.

It led to an investigation in 2019 by a retired High Court judge, Sir Mark Hadley, who ordered the two sides to resolve their differences.

In November the bishop issued a series of recommendations for the vicar and the abbey's church council, including ordering Rev Relf-Pennington to apologise to her congregation.

In his own 2021 investigation, the bishop said the allegations against the vicar - whom he claimed had an “authoritarian style” - “reflect a deeply felt division of opinion between parishioners who are supportive of the vicar and those who are not”.

However, her 12-page response - which has been published on the church website and is said to be from her and the abbey wardens - said that they “have been harassed” amid “unrelenting” pressure.

It said: “We believe the intention has been to break the vicar, break the PCC [parish church council] and to break the worshipping community."

It went on: "Throughout all these processes the diocese has listened much more to some individuals - in particular a small circle of white, wealthy, strongly interconnected men, all hostile to the vicar, who have a huge influence over the matters at Wymondham Abbey and in the leadership of the diocese.”

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