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Church cleaner accused of fraud by Vicar and PCC was ‘unfairly treated’, employment tribunal rules

02 March 2018


St John the Evangelist, Great Ilford, in east London

St John the Evangelist, Great Ilford, in east London

A CHURCH cleaner who lost her job of more than a decade after being wrongly accused of fraud by a new priest was unfairly treated, an employment tribunal has ruled.

The cleaner, Maria Wright, 62, and her family had attended St John the Evangelist, Great Ilford, in east London, for 40 years.

She began cleaning the church in 2004, and from 2005 worked there every night after local groups had used its meeting rooms.

In November 2015, the Revd Calvert Prentis was appointed Priest-in-Charge of St John’s and Assistant Diocesan Director of Ordinands in Chelmsford diocese.

The tribunal documents say that he considered it not “usually necessary or appropriate” for a church to employ a cleaner, having worked in churches that were cleaned by volunteers.

In about March the next year, he received two complaints about the cleanliness of the lavatories. After a meeting with the PCC two months later, he told Mrs Wright that he would allot some of the cleaning to an outside company.

Mrs Wright contacted the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd Peter Hill, who said that he was not Mr Prentis’s “line manager”, and, therefore, he could not tell him or the PCC how to handle the case. He offered her a way to take out a grievance against Mr Prentis, but she did not take it up. In subsequent correspondence, he told her it was “legally not possible” to hear her complaint.

In February 2017, Mr Prentis raised concerns with the PCC that Mrs Wright had invoiced for more hours than she had worked. He wrote to her, asking to meet her with the Area Dean, Canon Marie Segal. She refused, but offered to meet a group from the PCC which did not include him and three other members.

Last March, the PCC decided after a secret ballot to terminate Mrs Wright’s services.

Judge Moor ruled that the priest had been “too hasty” in accusing Mrs Wright of fraud.

In his oral evidence, Mr Prentis said that the reason for Mrs Wright’s dismissal was not over an allegedly fraudulent wage claim, but because there had been no agreement over whether she was employed or self-employed.

Judge Moor found that Mrs Wright was neither a worker nor an employee, and therefore could not be awarded any compensation. There was therefore no need for him to rule on the manner of her dismissal.

None the less, “because this case has caused such ructions within the church” he indicated that he would have found in Mrs Wright’s favour, and accepted her evidence that she worked on all the days disputed by the PCC.He said, moreover, that the failure to agree Mrs Wright’s employment status was “not a potentially fair reason” for her dismissal.

“Mrs Wright was upset that her long service to the church was being disregarded,” and that Mr Prentis was trying “to assert his leadership in a new role”.

He continued: “Mrs Wright deserved to be heard, and it does the [PCC] and the diocese no credit that it did not do so.”

Mrs Wright told London’s Evening Standard on Tuesday that she felt “really upset” by the ordeal but planned to return to the congregation.

A diocesan spokesman acknowledged that the situation had been “difficult”, but said that Bishop Hill “remains willing to listen to Mrs Wright and offer pastoral support”.

The spokesman added that Mr Prentis had left his posts in the diocese of Chelmsford, and “has since applied for, and was offered” a senior position in the diocese of Birmingham.

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