By CECILIA BROMLEYMARTIN A SISTER OF MERCY nun has won her battle at an industrial tribunal after claiming unfair dismissal from a successful Catholic primary school in Kent, where she had been headmistress for 13 years.
Sr Clotilde Stephens claimed that she returned from a holiday in Ireland last September to find that the management committee of St Bartholomew's RC Primary School in Swanley, chaired by Fr Seamus Hetherton, had met in secret and stripped her of financial responsibility for the day-to-day running of the school.
According to Sr Clotilde, the removal of financial control made her job impossible and the changes meant that she could not even pay for textbooks or minor school repairs. "There will be pupils without books," she wrote in a letter of protest to Fr Hetherton. "There is a hot water tank leaking, the physical education shed has been broken into and fencing is falling down. It is impossible for me to carry out my role."
Sr Clotilde offered her resignation, which she later asked to withdraw; Fr Hetherton refused and won the backing of the school's governors. He told the tribunal that the members of the management committee were concerned that Sr Clotilde could sign cheques herself up to the value of £5,000 and that £9,500 had been allocated, without them being consulted, for a new playground for the 315-pupil grant-maintained school.
One governor resigned and about 20 pupils were withdrawn from the school in protest as the heated dispute led to bitter divisions within Swartley's Catholic community. Some parents campaigning to have Sr Clotilde reinstated claimed they received threats of IRA-style "kneecappings" and the police were brought in to deal with one angry demonstration.
The tribunal's threemember panel agreed by a majority last week that Fr Hetherton and the other governors acted unreasonably. Valerie Cooney, the tribunal's chairperson, said that "a reasonable employer would have discussed the applicant's concerns with her objectively before constructively dismissing her." Compensation is to be decided.
Meanwhile, a teacher at Britain's oldest independent Catholic school for girls has also won her case for unfair dismissal. Jennifer Trevisan, 50, was dismissed from New Hall in April last year following tensions between her and the headmistress, Sr Margaret Mary, an industrial tribunal was told. A hearing will assess compensation, and Mrs Trevisan plans to ask for her old job back now that there is a new headmistress at the school.