AFTER several months of correspondence, including a threat of legal action, an east-London NHS Trust has granted a request by a convicted prisoner serving a sentence for rape for regular Christian Sunday services and holy communion at the John Howard Centre, Homerton (“the centre”), a medium-secure mental-health unit where he is being held.
Freddie O’Neill, aged 57, has been in prison for ten years, and became a Christian in prison. He said that he “grew up in care, and was abused by the system as a child and came into the adult world not knowing what God, family, and love are”. He was, he said, “a damaged person, a convicted criminal, but the only true redemption I have found in my life is hope in Jesus Christ”.
He was transferred to the centre in January 2018, and complained that there were no Sunday services for Christians. His weekly requests were ignored, and he turned to the Christian Legal Centre (CLC) for assistance. In October, the CLC wrote to the centre stating that, as a Christian, Mr O’Neill needed to attend regular Sunday services and receive holy communion, and that it had been informed that no such services were available, which was in contrast to the regular Friday prayers being organised for Muslim in-patients.
In response, the centre provided Raphael Zernoff, a former Roman Catholic priest turned spiritualist, to support the spiritual needs of Christian patients and provide holy communion. It was reported that Mr Zernoff made no attempt to say an appropriate liturgy, and would administer holy communion by saying “Here you go”.
It was pointed out to the centre that it was discriminating against Christian patients, and that it was breaching its legal obligations, including Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, which guarantees an individual’s right to exercise freely his or her religious faith through worship and observance.
It also breached the “NHS Chaplaincy Guidelines 2015: Promoting excellence in pastoral, spiritual and religious care”, which state: “Recognising a person’s spiritual dimension is one of the most vital aspects of care and recovery in mental health.”
The CLC offered to find a minister or partner church to help, but no Christian services were provided. Further correspondence took place between the NHS Trust and the CLC, and, when no progress was made, the CLC threatened legal action.
The chief executive of the CLC, Andrea Williams, said that all that the Christian patients wanted “was to have a service and holy communion on a Sunday, which recognised the hope they had in Jesus Christ, and to exercise their faith in him. This was not being taken seriously, and what the centre was providing was wholly inappropriate and disturbing to already vulnerable patients.”
A spokesman for the NHS Trust said that it rebutted the claim that the trust was discriminatory in the provision of religious services at the centre, and that every effort was made “to ensure that people of all faiths had access to a minister of their choosing and appropriate worship services”. He said that a Sunday service had been “re-established in order to further meet the needs of all”.
On Sunday 7 July, weekly Christian Sunday services began, and it was reported that they were being attended by six to eight people. Mr O’Neill said that he was pleased that the Sunday services had started, but was “concerned that they have still not been written into the curriculum in the same way as Friday Islamic prayers” had been.