Priest off the hook for accepting gifts

12th September 2003 at 01:00
The Roman Catholic priest who failed to spot that Colleen McCabe was siphoning off almost pound;500,000 from the school budget while he was chair of governors will not be punished by his diocesan authorities.

Canon John Watts chaired the governors at St John Rigby comprehensive, in Bromley, south London, from 1992 until 1997. During that time, McCabe, its headteacher, spent almost pound;500,000 of the school's budget on personal luxuries. Last week, she was jailed for five years.

During her five-year spending spree, the former nun treated herself to expensive jewellery, designer shoes and West End shows.

But she also lavished gifts on those around her. Canon Watts was presented with a holiday in the Middle East and a season ticket for Crystal Palace football team.

Southwark diocese, which employs him, has agreed to pay back pound;11,885 to the school. Canon Watts will also make a contribution from personal funds. But the diocese says this is a gesture to help the school, rather than an admission of wrongdoing.

Father William Saunders, of Southwark diocese, said: "Canon Watts is not in any trouble. It was said in court that he didn't know where the money came from, and that is our position.

"People can give gifts to priests, can't they? You don't ask which bank account it comes from."

Canon Watts has maintained his position as parish priest of Holy Innocents church, in Orpington. He is currently out of the country.

Sir Robert Balchin, former chairman of the Grant-Maintained Schools Foundation, believes that Canon Watts's actions should not be so readily accepted by the diocese.

He said: "It's wholly inappropriate for a chair of governors to receive any gifts whatsoever. I cannot think of any reason for it.

"The diocese should obviously rewrite its procedures for the accepting of gifts by its clergy under these circumstances."

John Stanley, present head of St John Rigby, will not be pressing for punitive action. He said: "My concern is for the present and the future.

The school needs to move forward now."

Last week a leading education lawyer told The TES that teachers who were forced to clean their own classrooms at St John Rigby could be eligible for substantial compensation.

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