An order of Cistercian monks in a remote island community broke their vow of silence yesterday to deny claims that they had unfairly dismissed a couple who had worked for them for 22 years.
One of the reasons that 60- year-old Andrew McHardy was sacked, they insisted, was that he had a drink problem. The monks said they were in an ideal position to know - two of them were former members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Andrew and Sally McHardy are claiming that, in January, they were summarily and unfairly dismissed after 22 years' service with the order at Caldey Island, off west Wales, with just four weeks' notice and three weeks redundancy money. They also shared a £1,000 present given in "friendship".
The monks allegedly refused them additional time in their tithe cottage while they looked for another home, and failed to provide any information about appeals against dismissal.
Brother Robert O'Brien explained that, while the order remained "largely silent", members were allowed to speak when absolutely necessary. They also followed a regime of self-sufficiency where " idle chatter" was avoided.
However, the monks had begun to whisper among themselves in wonder at the supposedly copious amounts of alcohol Mr McHardy was imbibing and asked questions about how he could afford to do so.
Guests staying on Caldey also remarked on the drinking, and wondered "how Mr McHardy could have paid for such a quantity of alcohol", said Bro O'Brien. "People came to me behind Mr McHardy's back to say he was drinking rather a lot. Two members of the community were members of Alcoholics Anonymous and wanted me to do something."
Bro O'Brien told the tribunal at the Halliwell Centre, Carmarthen, that the monks discovered that Mr and Mrs McHardy had ordered goods for themselves on a business account. When questioned, the couple maintained that was a mistake and the shopkeepers had been told to put the purchases on their personal account. The items were a coat, a glass and prescription medicine. But, said the monk, "it was a concern that it might have been the tip of the iceberg".
There had also been allegations that donations given by the public, while the couple were running the island's guest house, had disappeared. "People, when they stayed
Mrs McHardy was a "good seamstress" and the monks enjoyed the food cooked by her husband, said Bro O'Brien. However, Mr McHardy, who worked a 20-hour week, had taken 11 weeks' holiday in the year, and, during those times, the monks had to cook for themselves. The estate at Caldey Island, including the Abbey, is run as a charitable trust and has an obligation to keep costs low and use volunteer labour whenever possible.
Mr and Mrs McHardy had originally been employed in the guest house. They later worked at an adjoining tea garden before being moved to the Abbey.
Bro O'Brien said the work at the Abbey, however, should have been done by the monks themselves. "We were under constant pressure from the Charity Commission to explain how we managed the trust. In particular, they wanted to know the trading aim of the trust because it was not making a profit in preceding seasons".
Under cross-examination from John Bradbury, a solicitor from the Haverfordwest Citizens' Advice Bureau, Bro O'Brien agreed Mr and Mrs McHardy had not been given a written contract. He also agreed that there was no written evidence to back up the claims of theft, or records to confirm how much time Mr McHardy was supposed to have taken off.
The tribunal continues.