Sacked for scandalous reasons

11th November 1994 at 00:00
Josephine Gardiner reports on the controversy provoked by a tribunal's decision to uphold the dismissal of an RE teacher who became pregnant by a Catholic priest. If a woman is sacked for getting pregnant, she is seen as a victim of sex discrimination under the 1975 Act - but not if she is a teacher of religious education in a Catholic school expecting an illegitimate child by a priest.

This, put somewhat crudely, was the recent decision of an industrial tribunal judging the case of Monika O'Neill, formerly Monika Kocanek, who brought claims of unfair dismissal and sex discrimination against her employers, Bedfordshire County Council and the governors of St Thomas More RC upper school, where she taught RE and personal relationships.

Mrs O'Neill's employers had already conceded that her dismissal had been unfair on procedural grounds, which left the tribunal to judge the claim of sex discrimination and to consider compensation. The panel decided that Mrs O'Neill had not been dismissed simply because she was pregnant, but because the identity of the father made her position at the school "untenable" and involved the school in a scandal.

"Thus," said the panel, "we are left with the distinction between pregnancy, and the pregnancy of a religious education teacher by a Roman Catholic priest where that relationship has come into the public domain . . ." Mrs O'Neill's claim failed and she was awarded a mere Pounds 410 (two weeks' wages) in compensation on the grounds that her employers had a fair reason to dismiss her even though they did not follow the proper procedures.

Throughout the case Mrs O'Neill has drawn attention to the fact that she was given the sack while the priest who made her pregnant (to whom she is now married) was sent away by the Church for therapy and counselling. But the comparison was dismissed as irrelevant because they were not doing comparable jobs.

Monika O'Neill, who is now expecting a third child, says she is awaiting advice on an appeal. "I don't feel the reality of what happened has been acknowledged. I told the truth and the truth is often embarrassing."

Because of its dramatic and racy ingredients, the case has attracted massive publicity, and apart from the issue of celibacy among Catholic priests, it underlines the importance still attached to teachers as role models in and out of school, and shows that industrial courts are obliged to take account of the ethos of the school (or other institution) in dismissal cases.

As Nicholas Xydias, Mrs O'Neill's counsel, points out: "Case law shows that when you consider a moral reason for dismissal, courts are not bound to be moral pace-setters." He refers to the case in 1980 (Saunders v Scottish National Camp Association) of a gay handyman at a school camp whose employers dismissed him when they discovered he was homosexual. "The tribunal in this case decided that even if you could show that it was scientifically untrue that gays were more likely to interfere with children, because it was an opinion commonly held by society, the dismissal was justified."

While he admits that the ingredients in the O'Neill case were unique, he says it is worth asking what would have happened if the circumstances had been slightly different; if, for example, "she had taught RE in a multi-faith comprehensive, or if she had not been teaching RE, or if she had taught RE but had an affair with someone other than a priest. . ."

He also suggests that judgments like these give employers a fairly free hand to emphasise the ethos of the establishment, and public perception of that ethos, in disciplinary hearings: "what would happen, for example, to a gay teacher at a single-sex school, or an HIV-positive teacher with minimal risk of infection, or a mature university lecturer who has an affair with a student?" John McManus, the head of St Thomas More, said simply that he was "glad the matter was concluded and I hope Mr and Mrs O'Neill will be happy". While it is not difficult to sympathise with a head or chair of governors at a Catholic school faced with explaining to parents why the RE teacher is pregnant by a priest, the woman at the eye of this storm in a chalice still has a martyr's passionate conviction of the justice of her case. Monika O'Neill is adamant that she could have continued to teach RE at the school. "It's unfortunate that Chris was a priest, but in every other way it was a normal relationship between consenting adults. It didn't impinge on my professional ability.

"A lot of fuss was made about how it was a very Catholic RE department, but we covered abortion and euthanasia and a nurse came in and gave a very explicit lesson in the use of contraception. As for setting an example, I was teaching RE and personal relationships; human relationsips are very diverse."

She disputes the tribunal's argument that pregnancy was not the main reason for dismissal. "I had a relationship with Chris for 8 or 9 months before I was pregnant. They didn't sack me for that. Would it have been better if I'd had an abortion?" She also denies that she gave her employers a fair reason to dismiss her by talking to the press - the scandal factor had a crucial effect on her compensation entitlement. "I was already technically dismissed by the time I went to the press; the decision was made much earlier." (Her wages were stopped in August 1992 and she went to the press shortly after, but she was not formally dismissed until January 1993.) Monika O'Neill alleges that sexual relationships are rife among the Catholic priesthood, and her husband agrees, but regardless of whether there is any truth in this, it is not inconceivable that a similar situation could arise again. What can schools do? Most Catholic schools, said Michael Power of the Catholic Education Service, ask their employees to sign a Catholic contract which includes a clause requiring the employee "to have regard to the Roman Catholic character of the school and not to do anything detrimental or prejudicial to the interests of the same". That Monika O'Neill did not sign one was "an oversight", he said. "Most employees, if they realised there would be a difficulty with their private life would seek employment elsewhere. This was a very sad case."

Mrs O'Neill herself admits that if she had signed a Catholic contract she "wouldn't have had a leg to stand on. It's a loophole to get rid of you ... it implies that you are on duty all the time - but if you are, why aren't you getting paid for it?" Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, says that his union advises members to "resist" this contract. "It has been a point of controversy between us and the Catholic Education Council for some time. We've argued that the clause in unreasonable hands becomes oppressive."

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