RE teacher made pregnant by priest fights sacking: Chairman of governors at Roman Catholic secondary school offered staff member cash as inducement to leave post, industrial tribunal is told

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A RELIGIOUS education teacher sacked after becoming pregnant by a Roman Catholic priest told an industrial tribunal yesterday that she had been singled out for punishment, although other staff had had children outside marriage.

Monika Kocanek - who is now married to Fr Chris O'Neill - is claiming sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal from St Thomas More Upper School in Bedford, a voluntary aided Roman Catholic School.

The case is being brought against Bedfordshire County Council and the governors of the school. Mrs O'Neill, said she was dismissed from the staff after being told her position was 'untenable' and 'unacceptable'.

She argued yesterday that she was not employed as a guardian of Catholic morality when giving lessons on personal relationships, which included abortion and sex outside marriage. She told the industrial tribunal: 'I wasn't obliged to give any kind of personal judgement. If I was teaching English, I wouldn't have to hero-worship Shakespeare. Plenty of other members of staff were not living what you would call Catholic lives.'

Mrs O'Neill was first employed by the school in September 1990. She met the then Fr Chris O'Neill, an assistant priest at Holy Cross Church, Bedford, in the winter of 1990. He visited the school regularly to see pupils and staff, and the relationship developed in the spring of 1991.

Mrs O'Neill worked until October 1991, when she became ill with a virus. She did not return to work again as she became pregnant about this time.

She said she was visited by Fr Stanley Condon, then chairman of the board of governors, who said she should resign. 'He said it was best for the school if I resigned. But it didn't seem best for me,' she said.

The dispute rests on the claim by Mrs O'Neill that she was sacked because she was pregnant. The council says it was because she was pregnant by a Roman Catholic priest. But Mrs O'Neill insists the decision was taken to dismiss her before it was made known who the father was.

Georgina Middleton, representing the local education authority and governors, denies this, saying the father of her child was common knowledge.

Ms Middleton said that there were other cases where staff had not been sacked, even though they were unmarried, and suggested this was because they had been discreet and had not spoken to the press.

Mrs O'Neill said she had not spoken to the press until after her maternity pay was stopped in August 1992, three months after the birth of her baby, Jennifer.

She added: 'I had a right to say what I want to say when I want to say it. The public had a right to know what was going on.'

Mrs O'Neill, who married Mr O'Neill last autumn and is now expecting her third child, alleges she was offered financial inducements to resign. She requested a transfer to another school in the autumn of 1991.

But during a meeting with the head teacher, John McManus, she was told the situation was 'messy' and it would make things easier if she resigned.

She was visited by another priest, Fr Eamon Aylward, who she claimed invited her to leave Bedford and stay with friends. 'He offered a trust fund for the baby,' she said. A week before Jennifer was born, Fr Condon visited her. 'He was adamant that I would not put a foot back in the school,' she said.

On 13 May 1992, a week before her daughter was born, she said Fr Condon came to see her and demanded that she resign or he would have to make her redundant. She says he offered her cash as well as severance payments and maternity pay. Ms Middleton denies this.

The hearing continues.

(Photograph omitted)