Unfairly dismissed employee says bishop should consider resigning

By staff writers
June 25, 2008

The Anglican Bishop of Liverpool has faced a call to consider resigning after his former communications officer was awarded over £14,500 for unfair dismissal by the diocese at a recent employment tribunal.

The Rev David Johnston, who set up his own website to publicise the situation, accused the the Rt Rev James Jones of being "a liar" as part of his successful case, reports the Religious Intelligence newsletter.

Mr Johnston was initially suspended after the Sunday People newspaper wrote in November 2006 that he was having an affair with his assistant Diane Pendleton while still being married to his wife Margaret.

Lawyers for the diocese admitted that it “may or may not have been written by the Bishop”. In fact, the Johnstons’ marriage had irretrievably broken down sometime before the relationship with Ms Pendleton began, and Mr Johnston had kept his employers informed.

Days after the story was published, the bishop issued a statement to the Church Times saying he would be discussing Mr Johnston's future with him and he had given the couple advice.

At a grievance hearing in March 2007 with his bosses, the Liverpool Diocesan Board of Finance, Mr Johnston - thinking the comments were confidential - said the bishop had not given advice or support. He called him a liar and accused him of hypocrisy, using "intemperate language", the tribunal heard.

The comments were then relayed to the bishop, says the Liverpool Echo, and Mr Johnston' was suspended without explanation. No-one would work with him unless he apologised, the employment tribunal was told.

Mr Johnston was eventually fired in September 2008, his employers claiming that his views made his job as the bishop's PR man untenable. But Mr Johnston said the People article "was an opportunity they seized with both hands".

Mr Johnston, who was awarded £14,534, said he felt "battered and shocked by the lengths the respondent seemed to be prepared to go to to get rid of me".

The Sunday People subsequently withdrew the story and apologized for it, but by then Mr Johnston said he was being threatened by the Bishop, who nevertheless made statements of support in the media.

Mr Johnston declared: “The Bishop lied when he said in his statement to the Church Times that he was aware of the vulnerabilities of a number of people in all of this, and has tried to offer appropriate guidance to the different parties.”

The communications officer became seriously ill due to the stress caused by the situation.

It was his accusation that the Bishop lied and the subsequent difficulty of the two working together, that diocesan lawyers claimed led to his dismissal. But Mr Johnston said he believed that with Christian forgiveness the two should have been able to work together.

He commented: “It is the subsequent actions of [Bishop Jones] that has destroyed the relationship and it is grossly unfair that I am the person that should have to suffer the consequences. Quite simply, they have destroyed my life and the professional status it has taken me many years to develop.”

“I feel the bishop should now resign. Liverpool deserves better,” he added at the time.

A spokesperson for the Diocese of Liverpool said: "While we are disappointed, we accept the tribunal’s decision. It appears that our processes were in some way deficient and we are looking into this as a matter of urgency."

"Allegations made against the Bishop of Liverpool at the employment tribunal have been made by a former employee of the Diocesan Board of Finance. They did not form the basis on which the judgement was awarded. In any case the Diocese rejects these allegations completely.”

"As far as the Diocese is concerned any close examination of the Bishop’s work over the last ten years shows an outstanding level of commitment to our city and diocese. Bishop James was, is and will continue to be a key voice in and excellent ambassador for the City and Diocese of Liverpool."

Mr Johnston, a former vicar, created a website containing documents related to the case (http://www.liverpooldiocesetribunal.org.uk/), and he says "I have had many emails, many of them sharing similar experiences", adding "This has been a long struggle but it is now time to move on; I do not want my life to be defined in terms of this unhappy episode... I am looking forward to the future whatever it holds."

He declares: "I freely forgive all who have hurt me, and I ask forgiveness from all whom I have hurt. The nature of conflict is that everyone suffers, even the innocent."

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