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unholy row West Cork priest unfairly dismissed a long serving Sacristan after pandemic hit church finances

The Workplace Relations Commission ruled Michael Keohane be reinstated to his position

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A west Cork parish priest unfairly dismissed a long serving Sacristan after the Covid-19 pandemic put a hole in local Church finances.

That is according to Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Adjudicator Patsy Doyle who has upheld Michael Keohane’s claim that he was unfairly dismissed by way of redundancy by Fr John McCarthy in June 2020.

Now, Ms Doyle has ordered that Fr McCarthy reinstate Mr Keohane to his former role of parish sacristan in the Cork parish of Rosscarbery despite what she described as the ‘protestations’ of Fr McCarthy to re-instatement.

Ms Doyle commented that “the justice of the case dictates an order of re-engagement”.

At hearing, Mr Keohane expressed his wish for re-instatement and his belief that the parties "could work around their differences for the good of the Church”.

Mr Keohane - who acted as Sacristan for the parish for 26 years - told the WRC hearing that he was “shocked and very upset” to receive a registered letter confirming his dismissal through redundancy on June 26th 2020.

Ms Doyle has backdated Mr Keohane’s re-instatement to July 7th 2021 and ordered that on re-instatement, Mr Keohane repay the redundancy lump sum received of €9,568.

In her findings, Ms Doyle found that Mr Keohane “was unfairly selected for redundancy amidst an attempt to address the diminution of income at the Church”.

Ms Doyle added that Mr Keohane's exclusion from the decision-making process renders this an unfair selection for redundancy.

Ms Doyle also found that “the ongoing tension in the employment relationship to be a factor" in Fr McCarthy's selection for redundancy, "but it was not the sole consideration”.

Ms Doyle stated that Church financial documents provided to the WRC “reflect a sharp reduction in local income but do not reflect the Diocesan accounts or address the 2019 surplus”.

She stated that she could not accept that these documents reflected a fairness in Mr Keohane’s selection for redundancy.

Ms Doyle found that Mr Keohane “was clearly excluded from the participation in his own redundancy”.

The adjudicator found that Mr Keohane “made very cogent arguments for his retention in employment post his dismissal”.

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Ms Doyle said that the arguments were made in letters to Fr McCarthy and his Superior as appeals.

Ms Doyle commented: “He was not heard at those levels, and he deserved much more respect than that.”

Ms Doyle accepted that a climate of uncertainty and indeed emergency existed from March 2020 in Ireland through the advancing Pandemic.

She stated that Fr McCarthy “acted and made a redundancy of his sole employee as a perceived necessary and proportionate measure to how he saw things as an employer”.

Ms Doyle stated: “However, in so doing, I have found that he by-passed the need to practice an objective selection process tempered with a reasonable approach.”

Ms Doyle stated that she is “most troubled by the lack of visible effort” to save Mr Keohane’s employment during a national pandemic vis a vis a clear public policy to retain jobs.

In her comprehensive ruling, Ms Doyle said that she understands that Fr McCarthy “acted in what he considered to be the best interests of his Church, but in so doing, I found that he neglected to balance his decision against the best interest of his sole employee or to take account of the umbrella Diocese”.

Ms Doyle found that Fr McCarthy did not give sufficient consideration on the impact dismissal would have on Mr Keohane and Mr Keohane “was not heard on this key determinant”.

Ms Doyle stated that she found evidence from both Fr McCarthy and Mr Keohane “of repeated minor disagreements and a residual silence which did nothing to benefit an effective working relationship”.

She commented: “Perhaps both parties would have benefitted from an earlier mediation to copper fasten role demarcation at the Church.”

Ms Doyle stated that Mr Keohane frequently spending over and above the 12 contracted hours in the Church “created some tension between both parties”.

As part of her findings, Ms Doyle commented that throughout the case, she found that Mr Keohane “presented a strong affiliation with the Church. His family had been associated with the role of Sacristan and I accept that this 12-hour contracted position was a strong focal point in his life”.

Ms Doyle stated that Fr McCarthy “equally presented as having a very strong affiliation with the Church” and remarked “it is clear to me that both parties shared and continue to share an ecumenical loyalty that transcends the parameters of this case”.

Mr Keohane commenced the role of Sacristan in 1994, when he was 20 years old.

Mr Keohane’s family had also served in the role before him and worked alongside another Parish Priest from 1994 to 2008.

The WRC hearing was told Mr Keohane was paid €120 per week to co -exist with a disability pension and loved his Sacristan work, frequently attending the Church outside his contractual terms.

Mr Keohane’s solicitor, Terence O’Sullivan argued at hearing that Mr Keohane was not the subject of a genuine redundancy, but rather that Fr McCarthy had taken an opportunity from the economic backdrop to the national pandemic “and acted on the poor interpersonal relationship between the two parties and moved to dismissal through a feigned redundancy”.

At hearing, Mr Keohane stated that he is needed at the Church where he has dedicated over 26 years of his life.

In evidence, Mr Keohane stated that he felt unwanted by Fr McCarthy as Fr McCarthy sought to distance himself but Mr Keohane confirmed that continued to dedicate his time to serving the church.

Mr Keohane denied that he had organised a protest or chained himself to the altar gate.

Mr Keohane stated that he loved the Church and carried no hard feelings towards Fr McCarthy.

Mr Keohane stated that he “had grown up in the Sacristy”.

Asked by solicitor for Fr McCarthy, Beibhinn Murphy, whether it was credible for him to contend that Fr McCarthy had waited 12 years in the long grass to terminate his employment, Mr Keohane replied “I was not his favourite person.”

Fr McCarthy told the hearing that Church income was 60pc down and the redundancy was “an honest and responsible means to reducing costs at the Parish”.

Fr McCarthy confirmed that the redundancy decision was his alone and was made for financial reasons and denied personal enmity against Mr Keohane.

He remarked that Mr Keohane had not shown “much love“ for the Church when he protested at the Church rails.

Fr McCarthy denied that interpersonal conflict had informed the circumstance of redundancy and confirmed that Mr Keohane was impeccable in his work and stated that he had not provided an opportunity to Mr Keohane to appeal his decision as he didn’t want to give “false hope” to him.

Fr McCarthy stated that the decision was made in the context of a financial crisis and was not linked to any grudge against Mr Keohane and that he could not entertain Mr Keohane’s return.

Ms Murphy stated that the two may have “got off on the wrong foot” after Fr McCarthy’s appointment but argued that the redundancy was “an honest, measured and impartial action in response to the diminution of service and income generation”.

Ms Murphy stated that the ongoing pandemic had “caused a significant reduction in the income of the Parish “as Church Collections provided the lion’s share of income and these stood diminished.

All masses ceased in the parish on March 13th 2020 and Mr Keohane was paid as normal until May 18th 2020 after which he was placed on temporary lay off and advised to claim the PUP payment.

Ms Murphy argued that Fr McCarthy “had no other course of action outside redundancy”.

Ms Murphy argued that Mr Keohane was dismissed by means of a genuine redundancy and there were just no alternatives open to Fr McCarthy short of that decision.

Ms Murphy of Collins, Brooks & Associates further stated that around May 2020, Fr McCarthy engaged with his Superior and a plan to restructure Parishes into clusters.

She stated that it was agreed that weekday masses would cease at the Church, where the Sacristan provided service.

Ms Murphy stated the work engaged in by Mr Keohane was no longer there, as the weekday Masses had not recommenced.

Asked to comment on the outcome of the case, Ballincollig based solicitor for Mr Keohane, Terence O’Sullivan said on Friday that he wouldn’t be commenting “due to the sensitivities of the situation and the people involved in it”.

On Friday, Fr McCarthy said that he would not be commenting on the outcome of the WRC case "as we are awaiting legal advice as to whether or not to appeal the decision (to the Labour Court)".

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