Friday, December 20, 2013
Catholic priest to sue church for unfair dismissal
Friday, December 20, 2013
A Scottish priest who says that his vocation was "destroyed" after he spoke out against sexual abuse is to claim unfair dismissal against the Catholic church at an employment tribunal.
Father Patrick Lawson, who was removed from St Sophia's parish church, in Galston, Ayrshire, in September by the Bishop of Galloway, John Cunningham, has been granted legal aid to pursue the case that could establish employment rights for priests across Britain.
"An application has been lodged on Patrick's behalf with the tribunal," said his solicitor, Cameron Fyfe. "He is breaking new ground as there has never been a decision by a UK court on this. If he is successful, it would open the door to other priests in a similar position."
The Catholic church's director of communications, Peter Kearney, says the application is inappropriate: "For such a claim to be made, there would need to be an employer/employee relationship. Since the relationship between a priest and his diocese is not one of employment, reference to an employment tribunal would not be possible."
The application is the latest move in a long-running dispute.
In July, Lawson revealed to the Observer that he had been fighting for 17 years for appropriate action to be taken against a fellow priest who he claims sexually assaulted him and abused altar boys. He was issued with a disciplinary warning for giving the interview.
"The church still cannot handle the truth," he told the paper. "For 17 years I have tried to get them to reach out to those who have been broken by abuse. All they do is protect the institution."
Lawson was dismissed after he had been unwell for a period following a cancer diagnosis, during which the bishop refused to allow him to reduce his workload.
In a decree of removal, Cunningham wrote that Lawson's health had "prevented him exercising his ministry satisfactorily" and that removal was "justified and necessary for the good of souls".
The bishop cited 23 letters of complaint from the parish and said the priest had therefore "sustained the loss of his good reputation".
However, the bishop also received more than 200 submissions of support from parishioners, some of whom walked out of mass when Lawson's removal was announced.
"The diocese's orchestrated campaign against me has left me no choice but to fight a civil case," says Lawson, who is also pursuing a Canon Law case in Rome. "The case in Rome could take years. I only had three months from the time of dismissal to take civil action, so I couldn't afford to wait. There has been so much personal pain involved that I need justice. I feel so desperate that I have served, and been willing to serve, the church, yet have been personally attacked in this way."
Fyfe says the issue of whether a priest is an employee is likely to be referred to the court of session.
In 2005, the House of Lords ruled in favour of a Church of Scotland minister when her superiors tried to argue she was employed by God. A ruling that an employment tribunal could hear a Church of England minister's case was also made just last month, but there is no precedent governing the Catholic church.
"The crucial question," argues Fyfe, "is the right to dismiss. How can you say a person is self-employed but you have the right to dismiss?"
If the employment issue goes to the Court of Session, it is likely to take at least a year. If, however, it is ultimately ruled that the tribunal can hear the case, employment rights for priests will be established even if Lawson loses his personal application for unfair dismissal.
The civil case reflects a growing sense among some priests and laity that external scrutiny of church affairs is necessary.
George Gardner, a former parishioner of Lawson's, said: "In my view, the church in Scotland has not proved itself capable of being honest and open about wrongdoing and therefore an outside perspective is something I would support."
There are also fears that despite the Scottish church's publication of abuse audits, the figures are inaccurate.
Both Lawson and Father Gerry Magee of St Winin's in Kilwinning, also in Ayrshire have paperwork showing complaints made in 2006 against a bishop about claims of psychological abuse. Neither complaint is officially recorded. in the published figures.
"I feel aggrieved about it," says Magee. "Our church, our faith, have been disgraced by the very people who are supposed to uphold it: the bishops. They are defending the indefensible."Peter Kearney says the audits are "not a static recording exercise, rather an active work in progress. They are designed to be amended and revised in the light of historical reports and complaints whenever they are made."