Church faces £5m claim from racism victim

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The Independent Online

A woman who suffered racial and sexual discrimination while employed by the Church of the Seventh-day Adventists demanded record compensation of £5m yesterday after claiming she had been treated as a "leper" and cast out.

Valerie Eccles, a black IT co-ordinator for the Church, told an employment tribunal she had been victimised after making her complaints of racism public. Yesterday, she described to the tribunal in Watford how "flashbacks" of her treatment by senior white members of the Trans European Division of the Church had led to suicidal thoughts, depression and sleep deprivation.

The Seventh-day Adventists have a black majority and are the second wealthiest Christ-ian Church, after the Catholic Church, with global assets of $10bn (£7bn).

Earlier this month an employment tribunal found the Church guilty of both sexually and racially discriminating against Ms Eccles. The president of the European branch of the Church, Dr Bertil Wiklander, was said by the tribunal to have made her "life a living hell" and to have "set out, mercilessly, to destroy her". Ms Eccles was finally dismissed on unproved allegations of gross misconduct last year.

The tribunal said the Church engineered a "hostile environment" in a "continuing campaign to break [her] will ... Dr Wiklander set out to ensure that [Ms Eccles] was dismissed in direct retaliation to her having made a complaint of race discrimination". The tribunal also likened parts of the Trans European Division to a "despotic institution".

It added that the attempt to remove Ms Eccles' "delegate status" amounted to an "excommunication" and that Dr Wiklander "deliberately" set up a situation "in which every member of the Church would act to crush the applicant".

Ms Eccles had first complained that her managers had shouted at her and criticised her for over-dressing and being too assertive.

Ms Eccles said yesterday: "After I complained, the Church treated me like a leper. I was cast out. I was horrified to find that the Church I believe in was racist and vindictive".

Her solicitor, Lawrence Davies, said that because of the "severity of the discrimination we made the first application for punitive damages of which we asked to be assessed at a percentage of the operating income of the Church".

He added: "The Seventh-day Adventist Church seems to believe that if you sue the institution, you are going against God. If so, this implies that the white leadership mistakenly views itself as God."

Yesterday, the tribunal declined to award punitive damages but is expected to order compensation running into tens of thousands of pounds at another hearing.