A Catholic chaplain and former professor of neurosciences is taking legal action against an NHS trust after he was ousted for answering a patient’s questions about the Church’s teaching on marriage.
In a letter written in response to the patients’ subsequent complaint, the Acting Chief Executive of South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, Vanessa Ford, stated that the Trust’s policy on Equality and Diversity “takes precedence over religious belief.”
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Rev. Dr Patrick Pullicino, 73, is pursuing a claim against the Trust for harassment, religious discrimination, and victimisation against the Trust. The trial is set to take place in July 2023 at Croydon Employment Tribunal.
Rev. Dr Pullicino has had a distinguished career in the NHS as a consultant neurologist until being ordained as a Catholic priest in 2019.
He is best known as one of the few doctors who first raised the alarm in 2012 over the abuses carried out under the Liverpool Care Pathway, an end-of-life protocol abolished two years later.
On the 20 August 2019, Rev. Pullicino was assigned to visit a male patient on one of the hospital’s mental health wards who had specifically requested to see a Catholic chaplain. The patient requested that they go for a walk outside, which they did, accompanied by one other member of staff.
During the 20-minute conversation, the patient said that he was in a same-sex relationship and that he wanted to marry his partner which he said he could now do legally. He asked Rev. Pullicino what his opinion was as a Catholic priest.
Rev. Pullicino responded saying: “What do you think God would say to you about this?”
The patient went on to say that his father had cut off from him and was at odds because he was upset by his way of life. He asked for the priest’s advice.
Rev. Pullicino said that in the same situation he might be upset too and that it was important to have the support of his family and encouraged him to see the situation from his father’s point of view.
Each of Rev. Pullicino’s responses were pastorally appropriate expressions of the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Returning to the ward the following day, Rev. Pullicino was met by another member of staff who told him he could not enter as a complaint had been lodged against him.
Rev. Pullicino was then asked to attend a meeting with the Head Chaplain of the Trust, where he was not properly informed of the nature of the complaint.
Throughout the meeting it was impressed upon him that he had to adhere to the Trust’s Equality and Diversity policy to avoid future complaints and that he would have to retake his diversity training.
Following the meeting, Rev. Pullicino was sent an email confirming what had been discussed, with an added comment, which had not been raised in the meeting, which said:
“NHS policy on Equality and Diversity in relation to the complaint supersedes religious standing whilst working and representing the trust.”
In response, Rev. Pullicino sought clarification on whether there had been a formal complaint made against him and whether an investigation had been launched.
On the 17 September 2019 he was told in a letter from the Head Chaplain that:
“The complaint we discussed in our meeting on Tuesday is a formal complaint and as a matter of Trust policy this will be retained and kept on a central record for complaints. The meeting between us to discuss the complaint is a sufficient outcome provided the actions and discussion we had is carried out. As a result there is no right of appeal as there is no ‘decision’ to appeal.”
Unknown to Rev. Pullicino, however, two days later, the Acting Chief Executive for the Trust, Vanessa Ford, responded to the patients’ complaint.
In it, Vanessa Ward asserted that the Trust had in fact launched a formal investigation under its complaint’s procedure.
Ms Ward repeatedly apologised to the patient for the alleged comments and said that Rev. Pullicino’s supervisor would: “ensure that he understands the Trust policy on Equality and Diversity and that this takes precedence over religious beliefs,” a comment inconsistent with what the Equality Act 2010 states.
Rev. Pullicino was first made aware of the contents of this letter at a meeting with the pastoral team leads. They told him that the complaint had been resolved informally, but again insisted that he must take an equality and diversity course.
When Rev. Pullicino wrote to the pastoral team that he intended to resume his duties on the ward as the patient was no longer there, he was told that his correspondence had shown “no evidence of your acceptance and reflection on the fact that your comments went against all our Trust Values and Behaviours.”
It was also demanded: “Can you please record in writing that you accept that your comments went against Trust values and behaviours and have reflected on this in your supervision along with assurance that you have learnt from this incident.” The email concluded, “Only when I have assurance that such incidents will not reoccur can we look at you visiting wards again.”
Rev. Pullicino agreed that out of goodwill he would take the course under the condition that it was recognised that he had not been ‘homophobic’ to the patient.
‘You have no rights’
However, Rev. Pullicino was told by the Head of Therapies at the Trust that he did not have any rights because he was a temporary member of staff and that his contract could be terminated at any moment without notice.
Just before Christmas, and while on annual leave, Rev. Pullicino received an email from the Head Chaplain that he was to return his ID badge immediately and that, “from the 15th January 2020 the Trust is unable to pay for your services any longer due to the budgetary constraint.”
On 29 January 2020, Rev. Pullicino responded saying he was happy to work without pay and returned his ID badge. In response he received an email stating:
“Thank you for handing back your ID. As you are already aware the Temporary Staffing has removed you from the system and due this your IT access is not valid anymore. I need you to know that you are currently not authorised to visit the wards or saying mass [sic] as you are not currently under any terms and conditions or insurance. This will stand until and unless we have agreed in writing for you to have an on-going role in the Trust.”
In a pre-action letter to the Trust, Christian Legal Centre lawyers have argued that the reason for ending Rev. Pullicino’s role at the Trust has nothing to do with budgetary cuts as his pay was very low and he was the only Catholic chaplain on site.
‘Christian beliefs silenced and eradicated’
Rev. Pullicino commented: “I am determined to seek justice in this case as how I was treated was unacceptable. To see in black and white that my Christian beliefs in marriage, that have been taught for thousands of years, are not on a par with equality and diversity, was shocking.
“I was bullied, forced into a corner and told that I had no rights and therefore could be thrown out following one complaint.
“I believe NHS hierarchy capitulated and were not prepared to tolerate having a chaplain on site who would not affirm what the Catholic church teaches to be sin.
“There does not appear to be a place for Christian teaching or belief in the NHS. In a truly democratic society where all faiths and beliefs are respected, I would not have been treated as I was.
“I hope my case sends a message to the NHS that true equality and diversity includes Christian teaching and beliefs.
“My case is not an isolated one, there are many Christian chaplains and chaplaincy, not just in the NHS but across institutions whose beliefs are being silenced or forced out entirely. I am taking this stand as I do not want anyone else to go through what I have.”
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said: “How many more of these cases do we need before society wakes up? We need to see an end to the ideology of equality and diversity riding roughshod over the Christian faith and treating it with such little respect.
“Christian Chaplaincies provide the good news stories and places of safety in so many of our institutions. They should be treated with the respect they deserve. It’s time to end this kind of attack on them.
“This story is one in a long line of stories that sends a chilling message to NHS chaplains that you can no longer respond to questions on human sexuality with standard biblical teaching. You must self-censor, affirm at all costs, or face the consequences. We are acting to say that this has to end and will end.”