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 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 said “the justice of the case dictates an order of re-engagement”.
At the hearing, Mr Keohane expressed his wish for re-instatement and his belief 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 he was “shocked and very upset” to receive a registered letter confirming his dismissal through redundancy on June 26, 2020.
Ms Doyle has backdated Mr Keohane’s re-instatement to July 7, 2021, and ordered that on re-instatement, Mr Keohane repay the redundancy lump sum received of €9,568.
In her findings, Ms Doyle found Mr Keohane “was unfairly selected for redundancy amidst an attempt to address the diminution of income at the church”.
Ms Doyle added Mr Keohane's exclusion from the decision-making process renders this an unfair selection for redundancy.
Ms Doyle also found “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 said 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 said she could not accept these documents reflected a fairness in Mr Keohane’s selection for redundancy.
Ms Doyle found Mr Keohane “was clearly excluded from the participation in his own redundancy”.
She found Mr Keohane “made very cogent arguments for his retention in employment post his dismissal”.
Ms Doyle said the arguments were made in letters to Fr McCarthy and his superior as appeals.
She added: “He was not heard at those levels, and he deserved much more respect than that.”
Ms Doyle accepted a climate of uncertainty and indeed emergency existed from March 2020 in Ireland through the advancing pandemic.
She said 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”.
“However, in so doing, I have found that he by-passed the need to practise an objective selection process tempered with a reasonable approach.”
Ms Doyle said she was “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.
Ms Doyle found 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 said 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”.
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”.
In evidence, Mr Keohane said he felt unwanted by Fr McCarthy.
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”.
He confirmed the redundancy decision was his alone and was made for financial reasons. He denied personal enmity against Mr Keohane and that interpersonal conflict had informed the circumstance of redundancy and confirmed that Mr Keohane was impeccable in his work.
Fr McCarthy said he had not provided an opportunity to Mr Keohane to appeal his decision as he didn’t want to give “false hope” to him. He said he could not entertain Mr Keohane’s return.
Ms Murphy said 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 13, 2020, and Mr Keohane was paid as normal until May 18, 2020, after which he was placed on temporary lay off and advised to claim the Pandemic Unemployment Payment.
Ms Murphy argued Fr McCarthy “had no other course of action outside redundancy”.
Asked to comment on the outcome of the case, solicitor for Mr Keohane Terence O’Sullivan said on Friday he wouldn’t be commenting “due to the sensitivities of the situation and the people involved in it”.
On Friday, Fr McCarthy said 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]".