Eavesdrop on a late-night gathering of academics in a dark bar, perhaps huddled in a corner unwinding from a long day of weighty presentations, and you’re likely to hear juicy tales of academic misbehavior unmasked — forged letters of recommendation, plagiarized theses, falsified credentials (“He claimed a Ph.D. in economics but only had a B.A. in communication!”) — related with a relish compounded by horror and amusement. But all of these fraudsters combined could barely equal the output of Robert Parkin Peters, defrocked priest, convicted bigamist and pseudo-professor whose globe-spanning scams led to deportation from an impressive range of countries: South Africa, Australia, Canada and (three times!) the United States.
As Adam Sisman reveals in the entertaining “The Professor and the Parson,” Peters was nothing if not determined. For more than 60 years he officiated in a range of churches (even St. Paul’s in London) despite being defrocked two years after he was ordained. Exposed as a fraud in one location, he merely moved on to another, frequently embellishing his credentials and forging even more impressive recommendations until, by the 1990s, he was claiming to be a bishop.
He was equally drawn to academia, at one point applying to Oxford claiming a Ph.D. from the University of London, while simultaneously applying to London claiming a Ph.D. from Oxford. Needless to say, he had neither degree, nor indeed any degree at that time. Following his ecclesiastical pattern, he presented fraudulent credentials, obtained (short-lived) positions across the globe, and moved on, peripatetic until founding his own theological “college.” (“Dearly Beloved, Parson Peters Is a Phony” read the headline exposing that venture.)
From the photographs, Peters was a thoroughly ordinary looking, unprepossessing fellow; nevertheless, he was married at least eight times, usually bigamously, with perhaps a dozen more engagements broken just short of the altar when his fiancées learned of his past. He abandoned one wife on a train. When he was convicted of theft in 1955, the London Daily Mirror headlined their report “Romeo of the Church Swept 7 Women Off Their Feet.”
Sisman was first drawn to Peters’ story while writing his acclaimed biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper (“An Honourable Englishman”), who, fascinated by Peters, compiled an impressive dossier on him, perhaps planning to write Peters’ biography himself. Trevor-Roper having abandoned the project, Sisman picked up the task, augmenting Trevor-Roper’s dossier with his own research.
As Sisman himself acknowledges, without access to Peters’ interiority, “The Professor and the Parson” can provide only facts (often hard-won, given their subject’s propensity for lying) and external impressions, so Peters’ motivations — and his extraordinary resilience — remain elusive, though Sisman offers a bit of diagnosis at the end. I can’t help but wonder what Peters thought he was doing, and why, and whether, if I knew these things, I might find him more sympathetic; far from being the lovable rogue of fiction and film, Peters emerges as a quite despicable, though endlessly fascinating, character.
Patricia Hagen is professor emerita at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
The Professor and the Parson
By: Adam Sisman.
Publisher: Counterpoint, 231 pages, $26.