A church cleaner unfairly lost her job of more than a decade after being wrongly accused by the new vicar of fraud, a tribunal has ruled.
Maria Wright and her family had been devoted members of the congregation at St John the Evangelist Church in Ilford for more than four decades, and she began cleaning the church hall seven days a week from 2004.
However, when vicar the Reverend Calvert Prentis joined the parish in 2015 he decided it was not “appropriate” for his church to employ a cleaner.
Mrs Wright appealed to the Bishop of Barking, Peter Hill, who oversees the parish, but he refused to consider her complaint, the tribunal was told.
She was eventually told to leave last March, after being accused by the vicar of claiming money for hours she had not worked.
Judge Moor ruled the vicar had been “too hasty” in accusing Mrs Wright of fraud, and while this was not the reason for her job being terminated, she was treated unfairly “on a human level”.
The judge said: “Fraud is a very serious allegation and should only be made, in my view, after careful consideration, which did not happen here. I have accepted her evidence that she worked on all days.”
Despite finding in her favour, the tribunal ruled that Mrs Wright cannot be awarded compensation because she was not formally a church employee. The tribunal heard of “ructions” within the community over Mrs Wright’s status, as the new vicar sought to exert his authority. Bishop Hill refused to intervene, saying he was not the vicar’s “line manager” and it was “not legally possible to hear her complaint”.
The judge found that “no reasonable efforts” had been made to deal with Mrs Wright’s grievance, and there was no “potentially fair reason” for terminating her job. “She had provided work to the church for a long time and deserved to be listened to, whether she was an employee or not,” he said.
He concluded: “Regardless of her legal status, it seems to me that, on a human level, Mrs Wright deserved to be heard and it does the parochial council and the diocese no credit that it did not do so.”
Today Mrs Wright told of her hurt but vowed to return to the congregation. “I know I’ve never defrauded the church. I felt really upset that a church I’ve supported all these years has turned like it has.”
“At the beginning I just wanted an apology in front of the congregation … but he wouldn’t say sorry.” A Chelmsford Diocese spokesman said: “The Bishop of Barking was in touch with Mrs Wright in the early months of this difficult situation. He remains willing to continue listening.”
Mr Prentis has since been appointed to a new role in Birmingham and is due to start before Easter.