Federal Panels Order NIH to Reinstate Priest

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

A Jesuit chaplain at a National Institutes of Health clinic was fired because of religious discrimination and retaliation, according to two federal panels that ordered his reinstatement.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in January that the Rev. Henry Heffernan, 76, was wrongly suspended and then fired in 2004 from the Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center. That decision was supported Feb. 23 by the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency that hears federal personnel disputes.

Heffernan and his attorneys say a dispute over the role of clergy and anti-Catholic bias were behind what they call a campaign to get rid of him.

Since he came to the center in 1994, Heffernan had been fighting the clinic's desire to have him minister to non-Catholic (as well as Catholic) patients and to have Catholics seen by non-Catholic clergy, according to testimony before the EEOC. Heffernan had made that point to his boss, O. Ray Fitzgerald, who felt that the priest's attitude was old-fashioned, according to the EEOC decision.

"It just doesn't work," Heffernan said yesterday of so-called "multifaith" ministry. "Ministers of other religions are personable, but when they interact with a Catholic patient, as far as the Catholic patient is concerned, it's a social call, not any sort of religious activity."

According to testimony from others in the spiritual ministry department, Fitzgerald "had animosity towards Roman Catholics." He joked about priests being pedophiles and said "he would never hire another Roman Catholic priest again," according to the Jan. 24 EEOC decision.

"NIH declines to comment," NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky said. Messages left for Fitzgerald were not returned.

Evidence that Heffernan was targeted, the federal rulings said, included the fact that he was ordered to take elementary courses in chaplaincy before any other chaplains, despite having been a priest and hospital chaplain for years. When he refused to take the basic courses, he was suspended. He was suspended another time for going to the clinic to administer Mass to patients on his days off, something he said he did because he was concerned that Catholic patients weren't getting sufficient spiritual service. Heffernan said the clinic has four or five full- and part-time clergy.

"Here a government agency was punishing a Catholic priest for embracing his religion," Heffernan's attorney, Irving Kator, said in a statement yesterday.

The rulings did not explicitly speak to Heffernan's initial argument that multifaith ministry is a form of religious discrimination because it forced him to practice his ministry in a way with which he disagreed. However, in a separate document about the case, the EEOC said in October that the NIH "is obliged to accommodate" the priest's desire to see just Catholics, except in case of emergencies, "if it can do so without undue hardship."

Thomas Landry, interim executive director of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, said most institutions are moving in the direction of multifaith ministry because it gives them more flexibility. However, it depends on resources and the skills of certain chaplains, he said. "There is no template that fits every institution."

The NIH center is a research and treatment facility with more than 5,000 rooms and more than 7,000 inpatient admissions each year.

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