NHS trust agrees religious belief ‘afforded same rights’ as ‘diversity’

31 March 2023

A London NHS Trust has settled a discrimination case with a Catholic chaplain who was ousted for answering questions from a patient on a psychiatric ward about the Church’s teaching on marriage.

In a letter written in response to the patients’ subsequent nebulous 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.”

It has also been revealed that Rev. Pullicino lodged a grievance with the acting Chief Executive, Vanessa Ford, about how she responded to the patient’s complaint. In response, Ms Ford accepted that “on reflection” her letter should have been “phrased differently” as “Religion and Belief is afforded exactly the same rights as the other 8 protected characteristics”. She also assured Rev. Pullicino that “there was no suggestion that the Trust felt you had told the patient that he would go to hell.”

‘No rights’

Rev. Dr Patrick Pullicino, who has had a distinguished career in the NHS as a Consultant Neurologist until being ordained as a Catholic priest in 2016, was subsequently bullied out of the role and told “he had no rights.”

Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, Rev. Pullicino, 73, was pursuing a claim against the Trust for harassment, religious discrimination, and victimisation.

The hearing was set to take place in July 2023 at Croydon Employment Tribunal.

However, following Rev. Pullicino’s story appearing in UK and US media, the Trust has settled the case by awarding him £10,000 in compensation “for perceived injury to feelings.”

The figure falls within the middle band of Vento guidelines for ‘serious’ cases of discrimination.

‘Crucial’ to expose approach to Christian beliefs

Rev Dr Pullicino, who is best known as one of the few doctors who first raised the alarm over the abuses carried out under the Liverpool Care Pathway, said he was “pleased and relieved” by the outcome but said an government inquiry is urgently needed.

He said it had been “crucial to expose the NHS’s disturbing approach to the standard expression of Christian beliefs.

“The documented downgrading of Christian belief by the Chief Executive undermines not only her NHS trust but also all the patients under her care as well as the chaplains of different faiths that she employs.

“There is a tendency throughout the NHS to force their patients to accept generic “spiritual” care instead of giving support for their Christian beliefs. Christian faith is particularly important in sickness, particularly when in danger of death.

“Limiting this is inhumane, in addition to being outside the law. Good, religion-specific chaplaincy support is under threat in the NHS but is essential in all hospitals. A government inquiry is urgently needed into restoring Hospital Chaplaincy to its rightful place.”

Diversity ‘riding roughshod’ over Christian faith

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said it was “time to see an end to the ideology of equality and diversity riding roughshod over the Christian faith and treating it with such little respect.”

She added that Rev. Pullicino’s story showed a worrying trend that “NHS chaplains risk punishment for responding to questions on human sexuality with standard biblical teaching. They live under pressure to self-censor, affirm at all costs, or face the consequences. This has to change.

“We will continue to defend and contend to keep chaplains at the heart of our public institutions.”

Catholic teaching

While employed by the Trust as a part-time Catholic chaplain, Rev. Pullicino was assigned to visit a male patient on one of south London’s Springfield Hospital 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.”

‘You have no rights’

Rev. Pullicino was then 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 the Employment Tribunal claim against the Trust and Ms Ford, Christian Legal Centre lawyers argued that the reason for ending Rev. Pullicino’s role at the Trust was nothing to do with budgetary cuts as his pay was very low and he was the only Catholic chaplain on site. Throughout the proceedings, the Trust and Ms Ford strongly denied all allegations of religious discrimination.

Rev. Pullicino’s reflects a growing trend of Christian chaplains, including Rev. Dr Bernard Randall and Derek Timms, who have been forced out of their roles and penalised for expressing their faith.

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