Commission rules priest suffered discrimination, reinstates him as hospital chaplain

.- Fr. Henry Heffernan is expected to return to work as a chaplain at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center March 15, after proving that the administration had fired him for his Catholic beliefs.

According to the records in the lawsuit, beginning in 1999, Fr. Heffernan repeatedly raised concerns at the Bethesda hospital about the incongruence between the practices and teachings of the Catholic faith and the practices advocated by his immediate supervisor.

At the heart of the case, is the concept of generic or multi-faith chaplaincy. The priest of 45 years noted that under the multi-faith concept, a non-Catholic, who would be unable to offer the Sacraments, could minister to Catholic patients. Fr. Heffernan believed that he would be compromising his faith by permitting this type of chaplaincy for Catholic patients.

His employer claimed he was fired for failing to attend entry-level continuing education programs.

But the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that “a preponderance of the evidence establishes that the supervisor's decision to discharge complainant, based on the failure to comply with the training certification requirement, was motivated by discriminatory and retaliatory animus."

The commission went on to document animosity at NIH towards Catholics. Evidence included testimony from a contract chaplain who stated that the supervisor would joke about Catholic priests being pedophiles and said he "would never hire another Roman Catholic priest again." Another chaplain testified that the supervisor boasted that he had done things to provoke Fr. Heffernan in order to discharge him, like instituting the continuing education requirement.

The Merit Systems Protection Board came to the same conclusion as the commission in a Feb. 23 ruling.

In discussing the ruling, lead attorney Irving Kator of Kator, Parks & Weiser said in a statement: "Here a government agency was punishing a Catholic priest for embracing his religion. It's truly an astonishing abuse of his first amendment rights, and raises questions about why a taxpayer-funded government organization would be dictating to a clergyman how he should be practicing his faith."

The law firm is also defending a Jewish chaplain who was fired by the same management after testifying in defense of Fr. Heffernan.

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