Issue 62 — June 2007
Farewell Fr. Michael
Vicar retires vindicated after traumatic final year
May 2 saw the end of an era in Jericho with the retirement, on his 70th birthday, of the Vicar of St Barnabas, Father Michael Wright. Father Michael served in Jericho for 27 years, not just as a parish priest, but as a leader for the whole community who helped establish the Jericho Community Association.
His efforts to reach out to everyone were evident from his first posting in the 1960s to a parish in Willesden Green where he worked with a large Caribbean immigrant community.
Intrigued by this experience, he asked for a posting by a Church missionary society and went to the Bahamas where he worked from 1968-72. He then returned to England to work in the parish of St. Stephen’s in Lewisham.
In 1980 he arrived in Jericho as Vicar of St. Barnabas, whose living is in the gift of Keble College. As before, he soon engaged in community activities. One major contribution was his alliance with our then local councillor, the redoubtable Olive Gibbs, to make better use of the Church Institute building in Canal Street. At that point the building was being used for sports activities such as badminton and some meetings. But it was very run-down. They arranged for it to be renovated by the Council and it was reopened in its present form in 1984 – still owned by the Church but leased via the Council to the Jericho Community Association for a peppercorn rent.
Father Michael also became a local magistrate, though he always avoided taking on cases involving Jericho residents.
For a number of years he was chair of the Community Association and subsequently remained a key member.
Lately, as one of the trustees of the Institute, he also played a central part in the decision to contribute the proceeds of the sale of the current building towards the construction of a new centre on part of the canalside development site. Over the years, Father Michael has also been involved in major building works at the Church, notably the restoration of the tower and ‘bells’, and the laying of a new floor.
After all this activity he might have been looking forward to a peaceful transition to retirement. Instead in December 2006, he found himself under arrest. A man, now aged 40, had accused him of sexually assaulting him when he was an altar boy at St. Stephen’s. The accusations had first been made in 2000 but were not pursued by the police. Then last year a different officer launched the prosecution that put Father Michael’s life on hold. “To be honest”, he says, “knowing that nothing had happened, I previously hadn’t taken the issue too seriously. Now I had no choice”.
At the trial in London, the prosecution’s case soon began to fall apart. The accuser regularly changed his story and wrongly described both Father Michael and the location of the alleged assault. Other altar boys from that time rallied to testify in Father Michael’s defence. On March 27, the jury took just a couple of hours to dismiss all the charges. It subsequently emerged that the accuser had previously made allegations of assault against several other people.
Fortunately, the case was resolved in time for Father Michael to return to his duties to conduct the Easter services for the last time. He still faces a bill of many thousands of pounds for his defence. Although he should be compensated for most of this, he has yet to find out by how much. “I would”, he says, “like to thank the very many Jericho residents who rallied to my support at a very difficult time”.
His first retirement task, he says, will be to refurbish the house he has now moved to in Headington. So far, a new vicar has yet to be appointed.