A former Bishop of Oxford said it had proved impossible to ‘lance the boil’ of a vicar who organised ‘naked sauna’ sessions with his parishioners and who in a new report is said to have ‘spiritually abused’ his congregation.

Lord Harries’ comments came as a safeguarding report by the Diocese of Oxford concluded that Rev Michael Hall was a manipulative bully who abused his parishioners at St Margaret’s Church in Tylers Green, near High Wycombe.

Rev Hall, who died in 2021, was the priest in charge of the Buckinghamshire parish church for two decades until his retirement in 2000.

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Although Church of England officials had received a number of complaints about Rev Hall's behaviour going back decades, it was only after the suicide of one of Rev Hall’s former parishioners in 2020 that the Diocese of Oxford commissioned a safeguarding review.

The young man had lived with the vicar after Hall ‘alienated him from his parents’, the authors of the report said.

In the days before his death, the man told another cleric he was ‘suffering from depression’ linked to ‘trauma’ caused by Rev Hall.

Oxford Mail: Lord Harries Picture: Oxford MailLord Harries Picture: Oxford Mail (Image: Oxford Mail)

Elsewhere, the report detailed how Rev Hall:

  • Built a sauna in the parish centre to take ‘naked saunas’ with members of the congregation. Young people were said to have seen Hall and other members of the congregation ‘completely naked and touching one another’, with the vicar claiming they were giving each other ‘healing massages’.
  • Was ‘overtly sexualised’, allegedly ‘pinching’ children’s bottoms and using innuendo in everyday conversations. One parishioner wrote to a police officer that Rev Hall ‘arranged for two men to sexually touch women as they arrived at a party’.
  • Shut one victim in a broom cupboard and told him it was time he ‘turned to Christ’. Another told the report writers that Rev Hall would not let her or her husband to have any friends outside the church. As a result, her husband did not speak to his parents for ‘two to three years’.

One former parishioner likened membership of St Margaret’s to a cult. “Once we left, although it took some while to feel completely free, it was as if the shackles were removed,” she told the report writers.

Lord Harries, who served as Oxford’s bishop from 1987 until 2006, said: "In all this period there were three factors which made it impossible to lance the boil of this terrible situation."

The former bishop said that while people might ‘whisper and speak anonymously’, they were ‘too intimidated to go public’ and to his knowledge there were no official complaints. A series of letters were written by people wishing to remain anonymous, the report noted.

Rev Hall had a ‘simmering violence’ in his personality and ‘made it clear he would institute proceedings against anyone he thought slandered or libelled him’, Lord Harries said.

The vicar was supported by his parochial church council, making it difficult to act against the priest.

The safeguarding report detailed a dozen recommendations, including increasing understanding of spiritual abuse and ensuring complaints were monitored.

Oxford Mail: St Margaret's ChurchSt Margaret's Church (Image: Google)

The current Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Rev Alan Wilson, said: “The people I spoke to described feelings of being trapped and experiencing distorted family lives that persist to this day.

“I am in no doubt that what happened was wrong and I think that there can be no excuse for Halls actions. I am truly sorry for what happened here in Tyler’s Green.”

Lawyer Richard Scorer, of Slater and Gordon, who is representing the families of some of Hall's victims told the Sunday Times that the vicar's abuse was 'one of the most disturbing cases I have come across in the Church of England over many years'

He described the late Rev Hall as a 'profoundly abusive and deranged individual'.