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Top historian criticises St Mary’s for ‘grotesque’ treatment of professor

A leading Catholic historian has denounced events at St Mary’s College Twickenham as “grotesque” and resigned as an honorary fellow.

Professor Eamon Duffy, in a resignation letter to Principal Philip Esler of St Mary’s University, expressed his dismay at the suspension of a member of staff and raised concerns about its Catholic and Christian ethos.

In a letter dated September 18, referring to the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, Professor Duffy wrote: “The grotesque incident yesterday, when a senior member of staff was interrupted in the course of a lecture and forcibly escorted from the premises, is for me a decisive sign that things have gone badly amiss with the Christian and Catholic ethos of St Mary’s.”

The letter continued: “When I was made an honorary fellow of the college in 2003 I was delighted to be associated with a distinguished Catholic institution which for over a century and a half had contributed so much to Christian education in this country, and which seemed to be adapting to changing circumstances with fidelity and imagination. In the face of recent events in the College I no longer feel that confidence, and I therefore ask you to take whatever steps are necessary to remove my name from the list of honorary fellows of St Mary’s.”

Professor Duffy was also critical of the plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts. He wrote: “I have been unable to see how the demotion of one of the most successful and prestigious of the college’s schools can be justified on any but the bleakest financial grounds, all the more so because the high profile of theology in the college has been a signal to the outside world of its continuing commitment to the historic mission of St Mary’s in promoting Christian education.

He continued: “That the merger has been pressed on at great speed in the face of so much strong opposition from staff, students and informed commentators has been for me a cause of growing disquiet.”

Dr Robin Gibbons, who lectures in theology at the college, has also resigned following the controversy. Dr Gibbons said that he was resigning from St Mary’s College “on the grounds of conscience.”

Dr Anthony Towey, meanwhile, issued a statement this afternoon through his lawyers. Steel and Shamash Solicitors said: “Our client, Dr Towey, is dismayed and disappointed at the action taken by St Mary’s University College in suspending him and the public statements issued by St Mary’s following his suspension as Head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History.

“Our client believes that he has been suspended unfairly, that he has been victimised and that his academic reputation gained over 25 years has been publicly damaged. In addition, there appears to have been a failure of due process.

“Through us, Dr Towey is exploring all the legal avenues that are open to him in order to seek the appropriate redress. Dr Towey has the full support of his union.”

Following the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, St Mary’s College released a statement which said: “We can confirm that Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, was suspended yesterday pending investigations into a very serious disciplinary matter and a grave breach of his professional duties at the University College.

“This action was taken fully in accordance with our internal human resource procedures and with written, external legal advice. Arrangements are being put in place to ensure that all programmes and teaching will be fully covered.”

It has since emerged that the serious “disciplinary matter” was an email that Dr Towey sent to students in August but which senior management did not find out about until last week.

The email from Dr Towey expressed concern about plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and stated: “Since the principal specifically invites comment…it may be appropriate to raise any concerns with him or with Bishop Richard Moth, the chair of Governors. As an inter-disciplinary team, no school has worked harder to create a sense of learning camaraderie where staff and students ‘know each other by name’. It is a tremendous sadness that this sense of community is being dismantled.”

Following a board of governors meeting on Thursday evening, Bishop Moth released a statement endorsing the college’s plans to merge departments. He said: “At a meeting of St Mary’s University College Governors last evening it was decided to go ahead with the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Catholic Theology and to implement the merger of the Schools of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and Theology, Philosophy and History into a new School of Arts and Humanities.

He continued: “The governors expressed regret over the actions of certain individuals, both those associated with this institution and those whose identity remains unknown, who have been maintaining a campaign of misinformation leading to a distorted picture of recent events.

“St Mary’s continues to be committed to providing research-based high-quality teaching in theology and religious studies. This is reflected in buoyant student recruitment in this area and across St Mary’s. Our relationships with collaborative partners are very important to the life of St Mary’s and our long tradition of service to the Church will continue to be at the heart of all we do.”

A group of students has also mobilised to voice their opposition to the merger and has organised a petition which carries over 200 signatures.

About 50 students attempted to hold a peaceful protest outside the board of governors meeting on Thursday evening.