Wednesday 18 October 2017

Priest settles case that set local tongues wagging

Dismissal battle resolved amicably

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

FOR five years, an unfortunate tale of allegedly unrequited romance lingered over the parish of Bray, Co Wicklow. But this weekend, the long-running saga of the priest and his supposedly besotted parish secretary has finally drawn to a close with both sides agreeing to settle their differences.

Father Larry White, a parish priest in the seaside town, sacked his housekeeper, Margaret O'Hehir, after he claimed she had become infatuated with him.

An Employment Appeals Tribunal in November 2007 found her dismissal was justified but awarded her €1,560 because fair procedure hadn't been followed. The result at first had pleased neither side as Fr White and Ms O'Hehir each appealed separately to Wicklow Circuit Court, in what had promised to be another very public airing of their dispute.

However, both parties since then thought the better of it and they "amicably" resolved their dispute on the steps of the court last Tuesday.

A statement read to court and published in the Irish Times on Friday said they each accepted there was "a breakdown" in their employment relationship, they each regretted the pain and hurt caused to the other and Fr White wished Ms O'Hehir well in her new job in Cork.

The dispute is "now concluded", no doubt to the immense relief of all concerned, not least the parishioners who were already exposed to the unpleasant details of the case when they were aired at the Employment Appeals Tribunal hearing.

Ms O'Hehir had been secretary of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish from August 2001 and began working for Fr White the following year.

According to Fr White, everything was fine at first. After a year things became "uncomfortable".

She began to give him gifts, which he said he accepted because he did not want to embarrass her. On one occasion, she gave him a cheeky key ring, which said: "Take me. I'm yours."

In May 2005, Ms O'Hehir made a card for Fr White before a trip to Israel, with a message that she loved him. The priest told her that he could not reciprocate such feelings and, at a subsequent meeting, he claimed she repeated that she loved him before she became "hysterical and stormed out of the parish centre".

Afterwards, he asked her to have a psychological assessment, suspended her pay and eventually dismissed her on grounds of incapacity in June 2006, based on a medical report from the psychiatrist.

Ms O'Hehir said she was "totally gutted". As for her supposed infatuation, she claimed she had no "romantic agenda" with Fr White. She insisted she had never told Fr White she loved him, and would have been "mortified" to say that to any man other than a family member.

As for the message on the card, she had not meant the words she had written in a sexual way, the tribunal heard. She gave Fr White gifts at Christmas and on his birthday, but nothing out of the ordinary, and she was unaware they made him uncomfortable. Their relationship was friendly and professional, she told the tribunal, and her job in the parish more satisfying than any she had done before.

But the tribunal heard conflicting evidence of Ms O'Hehir's amorous intentions. One psychiatrist suggested that her "clinical presentation is consistent with a diagnosis of morbid infatuation, which is a variant of erotomania".

Ms O'Hehir obtained a second psychiatric assessment, which found "no concrete or defining evidence of her having erotomania" -- a rare disorder in which one person believes that another, often in an exalted position, is in love with her.

In the end, the tribunal found that Ms O'Hehir was not fairly dismissed but said she had totally disregarded the Catholic ethos of her employer, Fr White. Her position as parish secretary was tenable only if she exercised sound judgement in these matters. "This she failed to do," the tribunal said.

Fr White said he was satisfied with the outcome, and hoped that Ms O'Hehir could move on with her life.

But things didn't progress very far and the rancorous fallout continued when both Fr White and Ms O'Hehir decided to appeal the tribunal decision to the Circuit Court.

Ms O'Hehir circulated a newsletter, entitled 'Justice for Margaret', to several houses claiming to set out her side of the story. She claimed that Fr White was using parish funds to pay the legal fees for the unfair dismissals case.

Fr White was forced to respond to the accusations from the pulpit, telling parishioners in May 2008 that the legal fees were covered by the parish's general insurance.

At one point, her house was searched by gardai and on a website she posted a petition of signatures from local supporters, and photographs of gifts that she claimed to have received from Fr White, including cards and little religious statues.

However, parishioners were saved from another public rehearsal of the local drama on Tuesday when the priest and the former secretary agreed to put their differences aside. In the statement read to court, Fr White paid tribute to Ms O'Hehir, as a valued member of staff, and wished her all the best for her future employment in Cork, where she now lives. The statement added that Ms O'Hehir received no money of any kind from either Fr White or the parish.

And with the dispute now "at an end", peace reigns once again in the Parish of Our Lady Queen of Peace.

Sunday Independent

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