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Prison chaplain sues bosses for religious discrimination because inmates acted out Madonna song


A prison chaplain sued bosses for religious discrimination because inmates who played charades played “Papa don’t preach.”

Reverend Mark Burns claimed he was singled out when the inmates chose to reenact the Madonna hit in September 2020, an employment tribunal heard.

His prison boss, Paul Kirwan, expressed confusion as to why the chaplain thought the “timely and humorous clue” was intended as a criticism of him, noting that he was dressed as a “preacher/priest” at the time.

But Rev. Burns claimed the incident was part of a series of discriminatory acts by Mr Kirwan against him as a heterosexual, dyslexic Church of England clergyman.

The tribunal has now concluded that it was a ‘completely harmless’ event and has dismissed its case against Dominic Raab, the Secretary of State for Justice.

Prison chaplain Mark Burns sued bosses for religious discrimination after inmates at Wakefield maximum security prison played ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ during a game of charades

It was said at the Sheffield hearing that Rev. Burns began working at Wakefield Maximum Security Prison in 2018.

The role included providing religious care to prisoners and staff in the Anglican tradition, as well as pastoral care for all, regardless of background or creed, the tribunal heard.

Reverend Burns had only been ordained for a year before he started prison.

In September 2020, Rev. Burns arranged for a number of inmates to play a quiz. He claimed that Mr. Kirwan had taken over and made them play charades instead.

The tribunal heard: “One of the clues was ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ and (Rev. Burns) thought it was directed against him.”

“Papa Don’t Preach” was a worldwide hit for Madonna in 1986, reaching number one in both the UK and the US.

This was one of many allegations Rev Burns made against his bosses after he joined in 2018.

Mr Kirwan claimed that Rev Burns showed an ‘extreme sensitivity’ to being treated ‘differently’.

He said allegations of bullying against him and other members of staff were “outlandish”.

Mr Kirwan said in his testimony: ‘I have no idea why (Res. Burns) believes the ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ clue in the Charades game was directed at him.

“It was a timely and humorous clue that wasn’t directed at anyone. The prisoner who chose the clue pointed at him to help their team guess it. This was unrelated to me and seemed pretty obvious to me as he was dressed as a priest/pastor.

“I saw no reason to believe it was a comment about his preaching, nor why he thought it was.”

In March 2019, he accused Mr Kirwan of laughingly and smirkingly describing one of his sermons as ‘cold vegetables’.

He also accused his boss of putting up a poster of nuns making rude comments about a sermon they had heard.

The same month, he claimed Mr Kirwan ignored a complaint he made that a prisoner had inappropriately touched his leg.

He claimed Reverend Burns also had “no real work ethic.”

“Mark still doesn’t read emails, familiarizes himself with work protocols, observes safety precautions when problems arise, it’s always someone else’s fault,” he said, according to Solent News & Photo Agency.

“Most disturbingly, as a chaplain he seems unable to deal effectively with prisoners – in groups he continues to try to promote the King James Bible and the BCP (Book of Common Prayer) to men who can barely read or read. writing and who just want to hear what the gospel is.”

The tribunal heard that in July 2020 Rev Burns was given a six-month written warning for removing a radio from the prison. This was believed to be a mistake, but it posed a security risk.

The following month, he accused Mr Kirwan of asking him if he liked gay films, a question he said “undermined his heterosexual identity.”

His boss denied saying this and said they were talking about the impressive cinematography of the gay cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain.

The case was a tribunal presided over by judge Ian Miller, who dismissed the case as a 'completely harmless event'

The case was a tribunal presided over by Judge Ian Miller, who dismissed the case as a ‘completely harmless event’

After growing concerns about his performance, Rev Burns was fired in June 2021.

He went to the tribunal claiming unfair dismissal, discrimination and harassment based on religious belief, discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation, and discrimination and harassment based on disability.

The tribunal – chaired by labor judge Ian Miller – concluded that prison chaplaincy was an ‘sometimes unhealthy working environment’ and an ‘unhappy place to work’.

It added that Rev Burns was a “competent” priest and that evidence showed Mr Kirwan had an “abrasive” leadership style.

However, it rejected his claims in their entirety, ruling that the incidents did not happen as he described them or that they were not discriminatory.

The panel said: ‘We have found that this was a perfectly innocent incident over which Mr Kirwan had no control. The prisoner’s actions were not Mr. Kirwan’s actions.’

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