Vinnies volunteer wins $27,500 over non-Catholic discrimination


Vinnies volunteer wins $27,500 over non-Catholic discrimination

A former president of a Queensland St Vincent de Paul Society conference has won a discrimination case and $27,500 in compensation after she was forced out of the position because she is not a Catholic.


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A former president of a Queensland St Vincent de Paul Society conference has won a discrimination case and $27,500 in compensation after she was forced out of the position because she is not a Catholic.
Evidence was given that Linda Walsh had started working as a volunteer with St Vincent de Paul in August 1997, initially working for nine hours a week, but with her workload increasing considerably over the years until it took up most of her time.
Considered herself Christian
During her initial interview for the volunteer work, Walsh was asked if she was a Catholic.
Walsh said she was not a Catholic but considered herself to be a Christian. She then enquired if it was necessary to be a Catholic in order to work for the Society and was advised it was not a pre-requisite.
In September 2001, she was unanimously elected president of the Kingston conference, and it was not mentioned by anyone that it was necessary to be a Catholic to hold the position.
No objection
Walsh also discussed the fact that she was not a Catholic with the outgoing president and no objection was raised.
She subsequently took on more senior positions in the Society and was at one stage president of three conferences, although this was ruled to be not allowable and she stepped down from two of the positions.
In November 2003, an induction Mass for Migrants and Refugees Logan and City conferences was arranged.
It was at this Mass that objections were first raised with Walsh regarding the fact that she was a non-Catholic.
Asked three questions
Walsh was asked three questions by the priest who was to celebrate the Mass: Did she believe in Mary, the Holy Trinity and the Catholic Church?
She affirmed she did and the priest appeared to be satisfied with her answers and Walsh was permitted to participate in the Mass. As the priest walked away another member said to her 'you will live to regret this'.
On 26 January 2004, Walsh attended a meeting with Peter Richards, diocesan president for Gold Coast and Greg Harris who held the position of state council vice-president, chairman of migrants and refugees Queensland and Queensland representative for the National Migrants and Refugees Committee.
At this meeting, Richards praised Walsh for all the hard work she had done for the Society.
Point of contention
He then advised her that her being a non-Catholic whilst holding a position of president had become a point of contention for some members of the Society.
Richards told Walsh that he had been asked by members of the State Council to advise her that she had three choices to make:
  1. become a Catholic;
  2. resign her position and remain with the Society only as a member; or
  3. leave the Society.
Richards gave Walsh until June 2004 to relinquish her positions. She was shocked by this attitude given her years of work for the Society on an entirely voluntary basis and stormed out of the meeting.
Not a welfare organisation
At a meeting the next day, Walsh was told by the general-secretary of the Society, Tom Barry, that the Society was not a welfare organisation but was first and foremost an organisation for the enrichment of the Catholic faith.
At a subsequent conference meeting, Richards was asked to point out where in the rules it said that a president had to be Catholic, and he replied that it was not yet printed.
Walsh lodged her complaint with the Anti-Discrimination Commission on 13 February 2004, alleging that the three choices offered to her by Richards amounted to discrimination.
Genuine occupational requirement
After failing to have the matter struck out as trivial and vexatious, the Society’s defence was that being a Catholic was a ‘genuine occupational requirement’ for the position.
It pleaded that the Society as a Catholic organisation and private association of Christ’s Faithful, is ‘entitled to require leaders of each level of the Society to be Catholic, so that its mission can truthfully, with committed understanding and “witness”, be directed, guided and supervised and put into day to day practice’.
‘I note that this argumentative assertion of an entitlement is not referenced to any particular pleaded facts,’ said Qld Anti-Discrimination tribunal Member Robert Wesley, QC, in his decision.
Spiritual nature of the job
The Society also pleaded that a non-Catholic member cannot fulfil the duty of a president ‘because of the genuine spiritual nature of the duties and the witness required for that position and its vital leadership role’.
'Accordingly, it is pleaded, it is a genuine occupational requirement of the role of President and Vice-President that they are Catholic,’ said Wensley.
‘Again, this seems to be less a pleading of fact than an expression of opinion or a submission.’
‘Should’ be Catholic
The Society also pointed out that a December 2003 international rule said ‘the Catholic Ethos of the Society of St Vincent de Paul must be preserved. The President, Vice-President and Spiritual Advisor should, therefore, be Catholic’.
Wensley pointed out that ‘nowhere in the rule is it stated that the president of a conference must be a Catholic and that the commentary refers without obvious differentiation to spiritual and practical aspects of the president’s role’.
He also pointed out that the rules say the Spiritual Adviser to a conference ‘must’ be a Catholic.
The Society argued that Richards had been acting on his own behalf when he approached Walsh and had no authority to do so.
Vicarious liability
This was rejected by Wensely, saying there was unchallenged evidence that Richards said he was speaking for a number of members of the State Council and that what he said came ‘from above and he was just the messenger’.
Wensley said Richards had ‘actual or ostensible’ authority from the Society, which also had a vicarious liability.
He said that left the question of whether there had been ‘direct discrimination’.
The Society argued that Walsh had never been removed as president, had her voluntary work varied, been expelled or denied promotion ‘and was never treated less favourably than any other member’.
‘It seems to me that, literally, all of those propositions are true, with the exception of the last,’ Wensley said.
Treated unfavourably
‘The choices presented to Walsh meant that she was being required to change her position if she wanted to stay on as president, or to give up the presidency. To my mind, that was treating her unfavourably in connection with her work as president, or at least proposing to do so.’
The Society also said Walsh was at liberty to refuse to accept the suggestions by Richards and had continued to take part in the affairs of the Society.
However, Wensley said ‘the clear threat was that if the Complainant did not adopt one of the ultimatums presented to her, the Society would take whatever steps were necessary (and available to it) to have her dismissed from the presidency if she did not become a Catholic or resign her presidency or leave the Society’.
Religious observances
Wensley also rejected the Society’s claim that the Anti-Discrimination Act did not apply because the president performed functions in relation to, or otherwise participates in, religious observances or practices.
‘On my reading of the constitution documents, the Society is not a religious body,’ he said. ‘It is a Society of lay faithful, closely associated with the Catholic Church, and one of its objectives (perhaps its primary objective) is a spiritual one, involving members bearing witness to Christ by helping others on a personal basis and in doing so endeavouring to bring grace to those they help and earn grace themselves for their common salvation.'
‘That is not enough, in my opinion, to make the Society a religious body within the meaning of the exemption contained in sub-sections 109 (a), (b) or (c) [of the Act].’
The other issue was whether there were ‘genuine occupational requirements' for the president to be Catholic.
Wensley said the Society’s submissions on the necessity for the president to be Catholic overstated that matter ‘because a proper reading of the relevant documents shows that a president of a conference has many more duties and responsibilities than those in respect of spiritual matters’.
Pain and suffering
He awarded Walsh $25,000 in general damages for pain and suffering, including ‘offence, hurt, embarrassment and intimidation’, $500 for out-of-pocket expenses and $2000 for future psychiatric treatment.
Wensley accepted the Society’s submission ‘that the facts in this matter do not evidence blatant or contumelious religious discrimination’.
He therefore did not order the Society to apologise, as demanded by Walsh.
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