Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dumped just before Christmas: Sydney mum takes on Catholic Church in unfair dismissal case

Rox Subramany, with her 10-year-old daughter: "I felt unsafe. I thought I was going to be physically attacked."Rox Subramany was a struggling Sydney mother and proud Catholic Church employee whose lifelong commitment to her faith had never wavered.

In her own words: "I live my life with God's help and direction."

Yet when she reached out to church superiors in her own hour of need and complained of how she had fallen victim to violent, workplace bullying, not only was she abruptly terminated by email, she was stripped of her much cherished, voluntary duties as a baptism co-ordinator.

In her termination letter, which made no reference to her bullying claims, she was advised the decision was not a reflection of her "individual performance" but more an outcome that addressed "challenges" raised through an internal audit result and the arrival of a new priest.

In a David versus Goliath legal stoush, Ms Subramany has since taken on the Catholic hierarchy alleging unfair dismissal. Following a conciliation hearing presided over by the Fair Work Commission, the church agreed to settle the case last week.

"I am a single mum trying my hardest to raise my daughter," Ms Subramany said. "Not only did they fire me weeks out from Christmas and leave me stranded without an income, there was not even as much as a phone call, from anyone, asking if I was OK."

The Catholic Church is one of Australia's largest employers with more than 180,000 workers spread across diocesan and parish administration, pastoral care, education, health, aged care, welfare and community services.

In this weekend's edition of the Ku-Ring-Gai Chase parish bulletin, the church has published a notice, advising how Ms Subramany "resigned" as its "casual" administration assistant, a fixed-hour position she had held for eight months.

It thanked her for her service and wished her well in her "future endeavours". 

But Fairfax Media can reveal that behind that seemingly innocuous post lies a bitter legal spat which has impacted on the wider Diocese of Broken Bay, spanning Sydney's North Shore, Northern Beaches and Central Coast.

According to documents tendered in the commission, Ms Subramany allegedly suffered two unprovoked "violent episodes" while working in the pastoral centre at Berowra, last October. 

Those flashpoints, one of which unfolded in front of her 10-year old daughter and left her deeply traumatised, featured "threatening behaviour and intimidation" from a Catholic co-worker who screamed and swore aggressively in Ms Subramany's face and "charged" at her with "clenched fists". 

"I was shaking and frightened," she said. "I felt unsafe. I thought I was going to be physically attacked."

In a subsequent meeting with the parish council representative and parish priest, Father Shaju John, Ms Subramany complained about the "unchecked" bullying and disclosed a series of "questionable" and "negligent" practices she had witnessed in the office.

Aside from never having signed a contract of employment, or compulsory tax forms until six months into the job, Ms Subramany never once received a pay slip – an offence that carries significant fines for an employer. She also cited alleged "misuse of parish funds" and spoke of how she was 'told to lie to the auditor" which she refused to do. 

"I believe it was at this juncture that I was wrongfully blamed for many practices for which I was not responsible," she said.

To her shock, Ms Subramany received an email seven days later, from Father Shaju, advising her of "changes" to some services, adding, "there will no longer be any work for you."

In that letter, dated November 3, he said it had become apparent, through the recent audit, that the parish required "external expertise" to improve its processes.

When Ms Subramany contacted the diocese seeking answers, its HR representative, Susan Hatcher, replied: "I'm not aware of any grievance procedures that apply or that you would need to follow."

With the door to her beloved church slammed shut and with nowhere else to turn, Ms Subramany took the diocese to the commission claiming unfair dismissal. 

In response, it fired back a "jurisdictional objection" and tried to have her submission annulled on the basis that under its corporate structure, the parish was actually her employer – not the diocese. As is the case with many satellite parishes, Ku-Ring-Gai employs less than 15 staff – which excludes Fair Work disputes from reaching the commission.

In a heartfelt objection to Bishop Peter Comensoli, Ms Subramany said that not only had her treatment veered from "Christian values", it had failed to follow any sort of "professional, ethical or legal guidelines". She has never received a reply.

In a text message sent to Ms Subramany the day after the first alleged bullying incident, Father Shaju thanked her for sharing her thoughts on the matter and expressed his "wish" for a reconciliation adding: "I can understand your feelings and hurt."

When Fairfax Media approached Father Shaju on Saturday about the bullying complaint brought to him, he said: "I don't know anything about that one because in my presence, there was nothing. I did not see it."

Of the subsequent letter in which he sacked Ms Subramany, he added: "When I came here, she was only casual. So I told her there was no job here."

Ms Hatcher said she was "not in a position to comment" about the bullying investigation. 

Broken Bay diocese spokeswoman Annie Carrett, meanwhile, said a "confidentiality agreement" prevented her from discussing the matter.

Ms Subramany told Fairfax her "integrity" would not allow her to be silenced. "We know how families of abused children have been dealt with by the church in Australia and around the world and that's on the public record. But my case shows how the might of the Catholic Church will wield its power to deal with employees who fall foul of their system. They told lies about me, intimidated me, denied everything and then attempted to buy my silence with a confidentiality clause."

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