Northern Ireland

Presbyterian minister fired from college over 'gross misconduct'

Union Theological College Image copyright Albert Bridge
Image caption Belfast's Union Theological College is run by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland

A professor has been dismissed from a Presbyterian-run college mainly due to a contribution he made to BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme.

A church disciplinary panel found the Rev Prof Laurence Kirkpatrick guilty of "gross misconduct" as a result.

He has been "summarily dismissed" from his post at Union Theological College (UTC) after 22 years teaching there.

The Presbyterian Church told BBC News NI it would not be appropriate to comment on an individual's employment.

Prof Kirkpatrick declined to comment.

Prof Kirkpatrick was a guest on a Talkback panel in June 2018 after the Presbyterian Church's decision to loosen its ties to the Church of Scotland.

That was mainly down to the Church of Scotland's more liberal attitude to same-sex relationships.

Prof Kirkpatrick was subsequently suspended by the Presbyterian Church from his lecturing post at Union Theological College for his comments on the programme.

'Hurt and damage'

On Wednesday, BBC News NI learned that he had been dismissed following a disciplinary hearing.

Six charges against him were upheld but only the two relating to his appearance on Talkback were adjudged to constitute "gross misconduct," according to the letter which informed him of his dismissal.

Image caption A church disciplinary panel found the Rev Prof Laurence Kirkpatrick guilty of 'gross misconduct'

It has been seen by BBC News NI.

"Your contribution to the Talkback programme on 13 June 2018 brought Union Theological College and by association, your employer, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland into disrepute," the letter read.

"Your comments on the Talkback programme had a significant and material adverse impact on PCI's relationship with Queen's University Belfast and caused hurt and damage to the faculty's relationship and cohesion."

Image copyright Man Vyi
Image caption Last year, Queen's University suspended admissions to UTC undergraduate courses

The church's letter to Prof Kirkpatrick said he had taken part in the Talkback programme "at a time when there was considerable media comment, mostly of an adverse nature, about your employer, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland".

'Sinful'

It said that he had failed to gain the church's approval for taking part and that his comments during the broadcast were "unacceptable".

"You stated that you would be 'horrified', using that word twice, if a student at Union Theological College was taught that a same-sex, sexually active relationship was sinful, knowing full well that was the doctrinal position of your employer," the letter continued.

It also said that when another guest had questioned Queen's University's link to UTC, Prof Kirkpatrick had made no attempt to defend the college's reputation.

The letter said that Prof Kirkpatrick's comments had "contributed significantly to a fracturing of the relationship between your employer and Queen's University Belfast".

The disciplinary panel found that his participation in the programme and what he said on it amounted to gross misconduct and left them with no alternative but to dismiss him.

'No role in staffing arrangements'

The other four charges the panel upheld related to offences including entering UTC and attending a Queen's graduation ceremony after he had been suspended, as well as unauthorised access to the Presbyterian Church's IT systems on a specified date.

These constituted degrees of misconduct, short of gross misconduct and would have led to one first and three final written warnings, the panel found.

Queen's University suspended recruitment of new students to UTC in December 2018 following a review.

The University told the BBC it has "no role in the staffing arrangements at Union Theological College and is not in a position to comment on specific cases."

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