Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Monday, 4 January 2010

Clergy bullying 'rife' says Unite union

By Martin Shankleman
Employment correspondent, BBC News

Rev Mark Sharpe
The Rev Mark Sharpe resigned in October over alleged bullying

Workplace bullying of the clergy has become "rife", according to the union Unite which says priests are being picked on by bishops and parishioners.

The union has set up a hotline where the clergy can report abuse, and says it deals with up to 150 cases a year.

"Bishops have got a lot nastier", says the Reverend Gerry Barlow, chair of the faith workers branch of Unite.

Unite says the bullying frequently comes from superiors within the church who may be under financial pressure.

Bishops can treat people shamefully
Rev Gerry Barlow, chair of the faith workers branch of Unite

"A bullying case can go on for a long time", says Terry Young, a former minister who runs the helpline.

"They're picked on for everything they do wrong, so in the end the person runs around terrified. You see these people unsupported, driven into depression and a nervous breakdown."

'Campaign of hate'

Mr Barlow said: "Bishops can treat people shamefully. The most common experience is a priest gets called in for a pastoral chat, to 'see how things are going', within half an hour he's telling you he's going to fire you or take your licence away".

Parishioners can also carry out the bullying, according to Unite, citing the case of a priest in rural Worcestershire who claims he was driven out by a campaign of hate.

The majority of clergy do not actually want employment status
Reverend John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds

The Reverend Mark Sharpe resigned in October as rector of Teme Valley South saying he was picked on by members of his community after he tried to tackle financial problems within the parish.

"It started with the tyres getting slashed, ended up with a dog mysteriously dying, the car being smeared with excrement, and broken glass across driveway. There was intimidation people swearing at you. A month ago I had the lights pulled off the car," Mr Sharpe said.

Dr Rowan Williams
The Archbishop of Canterbury said the issue of bullying had to be tackled

The Bishop of Worcester has refuted claims by Mr Sharpe that his parish was "toxic" calling the allegations "dreadful". The Diocese declined to comment further, pending a hearing to consider the allegations later this year.

When Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was asked about the issue of bullying at a recent TUC conference, he admitted there was a problem.

"The question of bullying, I'm glad you raise it because I think that's unfinished business for us and I'm very glad that it's flagged up," he said.

The union says priests are vulnerable, because they are classed as self-employed office holders, which means they are exempt from the protection offered by employment law. This means they cannot claim unfair dismissal, or seek protection under health and safety laws.


Unite is lobbying for the government to change the law to give priests greater protection.

But the Reverend John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, told the BBC that while the church was "a human community like any other", a change of status was not necessarily the solution.

"The majority of clergy do not actually want employment status, or at least that's been the indication consistently at general synod when this issue has been raised."

"It's regarded as a calling by most clergy, not as a job, but there does need to be protection for people where these very tense situations do arise, particularly between clergy and congregation," he said.

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