The History Faculty was criticised by students for its initial response to the allegations against O'ReillySEIER+SEIER

Content note: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and harassment. A list of support and resources can be found at the bottom of the article.

The History Faculty has apologised for an earlier email which asked students and staff to “refrain from discussing [...] with the press or on social media” the details of a recent investigation by Tortoise Media into Trinity Hall’s alleged mishandling of sexual assault complaints. 

The apology was sent out to students and staff in the History Faculty this morning by Professor Alexandra Walsham, the Faculty Chair. It follows an open letter written by students in response to Walsham’s email criticising the History Faculty for “clos[ing] ranks around senior staff members and stifl[ing] the concerns of students and staff in order to preserve the department’s reputation.”

“I greatly regret that a message that sought to provide reassurance and to point towards sources of advice and support has unintentionally caused such consternation and distress,” wrote Walsham. 

“This is a very difficult time for all involved in and affected, directly and indirectly, by the events at Trinity Hall.” 

Walsham noted that O’Reilly had “voluntarily stepped back from his Faculty teaching and College supervising,” and that the field-trips to Central Europe he runs as part of his Part II papers for undergraduate students had been cancelled. 

Trinity Hall announced in a statement last Friday that O’Reilly had “agreed to withdraw from his college duties [...] on a voluntary basis.” 

Students taking O’Reilly’s Part II papers were notified separately of changes to teaching arrangements and possible modifications to examination papers as compensation for cancelled contact hours. 

Walsham added that she is arranging to meet with undergraduate and postgraduate representatives to “discuss the next steps very soon.” 

Last Monday, an investigation by Tortoise Media revealed Dr William O’Reilly, who teaches undergraduate and graduate students at the Faculty as a Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, oversaw a disciplinary process involving multiple women’s complaints of being sexually assaulted by a male student. 

O’Reilly allegedly had a “close relationship” with the male student, who denied the accusations, as Trinity Hall’s Acting Senior Tutor in 2018. 

Tortoise also reported that, during this time, O’Reilly had himself been accused of sexually assaulting another student in the College. 

O’Reilly denies all the allegations and “rejects any suggestion he behaved improperly”. He attended a voluntary interview with the police in October 2018 but was never arrested or charged and no further action was taken by the police.

On Wednesday, Walsham stressed in an email sent out to all students and staff at the History Faculty that the University was “satisfied that no additional steps need to be taken in the interests of the welfare of the Faculty’s students and staff.” 

She asked students and staff to “respect the privacy” of O’Reilly, “refrain from discussing the matter with the press or on social media,” and direct “any requests for comment” on the matter to the University’s Communication’s Office. 

In full O'Reilly's response to the allegations

A spokesperson for Dr William O'Reilly said: "Dr O'Reilly believes he acted with integrity and followed appropriate safeguarding advice throughout the various internal processes at Trinity Hall. He rejects any suggestion that he behaved improperly and is appalled that what should have been confidential procedures have been made public.

"He strenuously denies the serious allegation made against him by someone for whom he acted as tutor. He first became aware of it when he voluntarily attended the police station in October 2018; in early November 2018 police informed him the matter was not being pursued. During that time he withdrew himself from supervisory teaching duties. No charges were made, he was not arrested, and no further action has been taken.

“In 14 years at Cambridge University Dr O'Reilly has acted as a supervisor and a tutor to many hundreds of students, usually on a one-to-one basis, and has never previously had a complaint levelled against him."

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The email was met with anger from students, who wrote an open letter expressing their “disappointment, shock, and anger” at the Faculty Chair’s response to the Tortoise investigation. 

The open letter, which has been signed by 300 students and alumni, condemned Walsham for “dismiss[ing] the concerns of students and staff without any consideration for the distress this has caused, especially to those who are survivors of sexual abuse and misconduct.” 

It warned that the Faculty was prioritising its reputation over the “welfare of students and the protection of those who have experienced sexual misconduct” and “actively contributing to a broader culture of silence and fear, where both students and staff alike are discouraged from speaking out about abuse and misconduct.” 

The open letter demanded that Walsham retract and apologise for the email, and suspend O’Reilly from all teaching duties in the History Faculty pending further investigation of the allegations against him, as “immediate steps to restore the trust of students who no longer feel safe and cared for in their own department.” 

Responding to Walsham’s apology, the group of students who wrote the open letter told Varsity that while they are “glad that that Professor Walsham has acknowledged the need to address the History Faculty’s terrible initial response to the case against Dr O’Reilly, and that he has stepped back from faculty teaching,” serious concerns and doubts remain. 

“We do still feel that the ‘apology' is somewhat lukewarm and dodges genuine accountability over the Faculty’s decision to scaremonger and silence students, whilst simultaneously dismissing the testimony of survivors of sexual misconduct.”

They added that “fundamental issues have been left unaddressed. The Faculty has failed to take any decisive action against O’Reilly, and it appears to be at his own discretion as to whether he returns to teaching, which is far from reassuring.”

“As well as meeting with faculty representatives (a meeting which should be minuted with said minutes made available to students), we think that it is necessary for a wider open meeting to be arranged, for the sake of transparency and giving voice to all students with concerns.”


Mountain View

History Faculty calls for students’ silence following Trinity Hall allegations

Undergraduate Faculty Representative Owen Dowling told Varsity that the representatives will be meeting with the Faculty "as soon as possible" to "express student concerns and push for further action". He will be pushing for an open meeting where students can express their concerns to the Faculty directly and ensure transparency in future actions.

"It's good that the Faculty has acknowledged its very poor response to this scandal, but going forward open dialogue and accountable engagement with students and staff will be vital. Three hundred students and alumni have signed the Open Letter, which demonstrates the strength of feeling provoked by the Faculty’s deeply problematic initial response."

Postgraduate representatives have been contacted for comment. 

In response to the letter, last week a University spokesperson told Varsity: “The Faculty of History, along with the University, takes its safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously. It is also fully aware that the experiences of students involved in any incident of alleged sexual misconduct can be extremely traumatic.

"The University regards the welfare of its students as its highest priority. In this instance it believes it has taken the necessary steps to protect this. If this changes, then further action will be taken at the appropriate point.

"The Faculty of History is not trying to silence students. The email from the Chair of Faculty was a request to exercise restraint in public comment regarding an individual who has not been charged with a crime and who vigorously asserts his innocence. It is the same advice that the University offers when students find themselves in difficult situations."

This article has been updated on 25th February to include Owen Dowling's comment.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources: