Chaplaincy, charades and bullying at HMP Wakefield: Burns

In Rev M Burns v Secretary of State for Justice [2023] UKET 1805182/2021, Mr Burns had been an Assistant Chaplain at HMP Wakefield and was dismissed in June 2021 following growing concerns about his performance. He brought a claim for unfair dismissal, discrimination on grounds of religious belief, sexual orientation and disability (in his case, dyslexia) and harassment. One of his complaints was about a game of charades in which one of the clues – selected by one of the prisoners ­­– was Papa Don’t Preach (a single by Madonna), which Mr Burns thought was directed at him.

The Chaplain, the Revd Paul Kirwan, was critical of Mr Burns’s approach to chaplaincy, concluding in his mid-year review in 2019 that he had “poor interpersonal skills with staff and prisoners” [58] and that he tried to promote the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer “to men who can hardly read or write and who just want to hear what the Gospel is” [67].

The Tribunal said that the chaplaincy was an “unhealthy working environment at times” [193]. Though Mr Burns was a “competent” priest and Mr Kirwan appeared to have an “abrasive management style” [230], one of the witnesses, Ms Thompson-Vear, “was clear that Mr Kirwan did not discriminate – in her view he treated all chaplains equally poorly” [231]. The Tribunal concluded that the chaplaincy

“was an unhappy place to work. There was a degree of dysfunctionality that was likely not helped by Mr Kirwan’s management style. We think, however, that Mr Kirwan was probably dogmatic and strict and potentially this is not necessarily a bad thing in a high-security prison. We were left with the distinct impression that this kind of management was very different to the pastoral approach taken by the chaplains’ respective religious organisations and this created conflict. This tension is probably best illustrated by the claimant’s unfortunate inconsistent approach to the very strict security procedures in place” [232].

The Tribunal dismissed the claim in its entirety, ruling that either the incidents had not happened as Mr Burns had described them or that they had not been discriminatory:

“The claimant’s case is that he was set up to fail by Mr Kirwan. We do not agree. We think that Mr Kirwan’s motivation was to get the claimant to an acceptable standard” [265].

As to the Papa don’t preach incident, it was “a wholly innocuous incident outside Mr Kirwan’s control. The acts of the prisoner were not acts of Mr Kirwan” [343].

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Chaplaincy, charades and bullying at HMP Wakefield: Burns" in Law & Religion UK, 13 March 2023,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *