BY CHRISTINA WHITE
THE BISHOPS of England and Wales have rejected Government proposals to give priests rights under employment law, insisting that canon law provides "sound and adequate" safeguards for the rights of clergy.
The bishops were responding to a Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) discussion paper on Employment Status and Statutory Employment Rights. In a joint submission together with the Conference of Religious and the National Conference of Priests (NCP) standing committee, the bishops argued against any change to the existing law.
The joint statement, described as a "robust response" to the paper, said change would be inappropriate and would "fundamentally undermine the relationship between a priest or deacon and his bishop and between the cleric and the people entrusted to his pastoral care".
It declared that the Code of Canon Law provided "sound and adequate safeguards " for the rights of clergy and said it would not be appropriate to regard priests as "employees".
The DTI document states that because priests are "officeholders", they are "unable to seek redress through the legal system in the event of any dispute over their treatment by Church authorities". But the bishops' response argued that the priesthood was not a career, but a vocation "which is allencompassing and life long".
"The language of employee, employer and service provider is completely alien to the Catholic understanding of ordained ministry," the bishops said.
Canon law sets out provi sions with regard to the appointment, transfer or removal of parish priests, under the authority of the diocesan bishop. Under canon law, seven offences may warrant dismissal from the clerical state, depending on the circumstances and only following a formal penal trial. These are heresy or schism; desecration of the Blessed Sacrament; physical force against the Roman Pontiff; solicitation of a penitent under the pretext of confession; attempted marriage; scandalous sexual relationships or other sexual offences, including the abuse of minors.
The statement said that in all aspects "including the financial one, the benefit available to the priest goes beyond what an employment tribunal may award for any unfair dismissal claim in other contexts". It concluded that canon law provides "sound and obliga tory procedures" by which priests and religious may defend their rights.
Priests' rights were discussed at the NCP's annual conference earlier this year. But Fr Shaun Middleton, secretary of the NCP, denied that the bishops' response to the DTI failed to account for the wishes of priests.
"The DTI was looking at the protection of atypical workers with regard to capricious employers," he said. "Its primary focus was dismissal. What we've said is that in canon law we have a huge number of obligations but also a huge number of rights as well as access to a tribunal.
"We took the line that sticking to canon law afforded us much more protection than anything the civil law could do for us. You simplycan't apply the language the Government wants to use to our state of life."