Convent that became a hell

13th June 2003 at 01:00

Sister Bernadette and her governors lose legal battle against victimised teacher who told tribunal about staff bullying, bogus qualifications and `unstable' nuns. Warwick Mansell reports

A PHYSICS teacher at a Catholic girls' school was unfairly dismissed and victimised after blowing the whistle on staff bullying, an employment tribunal has unanimously concluded.

Croydon Employment Tribunal outlined a catalogue of failings by the head and governors at Virgo Fidelis convent school, south London, which, it said, appeared to have been designed to force teacher Kevin Boyle to leave.

Mr Boyle had also complained that two teachers were conducting an affair on the school premises and that a nun, possibly a lesbian, was counselling girls.

The 52-year-old, who represented himself at the proceedings, now works at another school. He was due to find out today how much compensation he will receive.

Mr Boyle said: "This case has devoured my energy for the past three years and I am relieved it has been resolved successfully.

"It has not been easy for myself or my family."

The tribunal has recommended that Sister Bernadette Davey, head of Virgo Fidelis, undergo management training, with specific reference to human resources.

It said the school's former union representative had also been victimised - and was now on long-term sick leave after investigating staff complaints.

The judgment traced the case back to early 2000, when Mr Boyle asked Sister Bernadette and governors to investigate allegations of bullying by the then deputy head, Kris Sodhi.

He had also, correctly, complained that Mr Sodhi's PhD qualification was bogus. Mr Sodhi resigned from the school last year.

But these allegations, backed by complaints from 16 teachers collected by Tom Real, the school's National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers' representative, were dismissed by Sister Bernadette.

In July 2001, Mr Boyle wrote to Croydon council, Southwark diocese and the leaders of Sister Bernadette's order in France.

The tribunal was told the letter described Sister Bernadette as "disastrous" for staff and pupils.

Mr Boyle had written: "Her office is a black hole where everything dies."

The judgment said Mr Boyle admitted the letter was "intemperately worded", but while criticising management, had not referred to Sister Bernadette by name.

The hearing also heard Mr Boyle had claimed there were rumours that Mr Sodhi was having an affair with a teacher on school premises. "A member of staff was in the library while the springs of the bed upstairs made an unholy rhythmic twanging," Mr Boyle said.

He also wrote that the young nun, who was thought to be a lesbian, was "unstable" but was allowed to counsel vulnerable schoolgirls. She took one girl on regular car trips at the weekend and allegedly told other members of staff that some girls "fancied her", the tribunal was told.

Mr Boyle also said a woman teacher had left the school five weeks before the end of term in 2001, complaining of sexual harassment by a female staff member, which he thought Sister Bernadette had failed to investigate properly.

The school's head of music died after falling from a window in 2000, and Sister Bernadette said she was upset by Mr Boyle's suggestion that she and other members of staff had driven the teacher to suicide.

Sister Bernadette was sent a copy of Mr Boyle's letter, and disciplinary proceedings were launched against him. He was suspended in November 2001, and sacked in March last year.

The tribunal found Sister Bernadette's evidence "unconvincing" and said that Mr Real had been "victimised by the management to the extent that he became ill", and was still on sick leave.

The panel said it was not its job to investigate the truth of all the allegations made within Mr Boyle's letter.

But it was true that a music teacher had fallen to her death from the school roof, and that another teacher had resigned "after an incident relating to sexual harassment".

Mr Boyle withdrew a separate claim of breach of contract. He said he felt "betrayed" by the council and his union, the NASUWT, which had refused to support him after he declined to settle with the school and leave.

A joint statement by Sister Bernadette and Croydon council said the school would not be appealing against the decision. Virgo Fidelis had achieved a "glowing" inspection report in 2000 and was popular.

Briefing, 34


The judgment offered 11 reasons why the dismissal was unfair, including:

* the fact there was no fair chance for Mr Boyle to defend himself either during disciplinary proceedings or at appeal.

* investigations of allegations by Sister Bernadette herself.

* Mr Boyle was told to confront members of staff with his allegations. But when he did, he was accused of gross misconduct.

* the refusal by the school to consider allegations about Mr Sodhi after he resigned.

* discussions between governors and Sister Bernadette before the disciplinary meeting at which he was sacked and at his appeal. John Finnin, the chair of governors, "was prepared to accept Sister Bernadette's evidence without question".

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