Enoch Burke objected to being asked by the principal of Wilson’s Hospital School to address a transitioning student by their preferred new name and using ‘they’ but did not take issue to a similar request concerning a different student months earlier, the High Court has heard.
At a school religious service and associated dinner last June, Mr Burke publicly took issue with a request made by the then principal, Niamh McShane, a month earlier to address a student by a new name and using the pronoun they, Mark Connaughton SC said.
Mr Burke had not objected to a similar request issued by the principal in November 2021 in relation to a different student, counsel said.
Mr Connaughton said Mr Burke’s “unacceptable” behaviour at the event last June resulted in the school initiating a disciplinary process. Apart from “haranguing” Ms McShane and instructing her she needed to reverse her communication to teachers, he persisted in a type of behaviour that she found “challenging”.
At the end of the function, Ms McShane was escorted away by others because they believed that if Mr Burke was not kept away from her, he would continue to harangue her, counsel said.
While Mr Burke disputes he was anything other than respectful, and claimed Ms McShane was not escorted away because of him but because she had just had hip surgery, the school “have a very different view”, counsel said.
In issuing the direction to teachers and staff in May, the sole objective of the school was not “to promote transgenderism”, as Mr Burke alleged, but purely to attempt to facilitate the student with a view to assisting them in the furtherance of their education, he said. The school’s ethos was about ensuring the experience of students there was happy and positive.
The school had consistently given Mr Burke options to engage but he had chosen to set his face against any form of co-operation and would not broach any discussion on the subject unless the school did exactly as he sought.
“There is no compromise from this gentleman,” he said.
Counsel was opening the school’s action against Mr Burke in which the core issue is whether he was wrongly suspended from his teaching position last August pending the disciplinary process.
Mr Burke, in a defence and counter-claim, has denied any misconduct on his part and contends the entire disciplinary process should be annulled. He disputes the school’s account of events in many respects and contends his constitutional rights, including to freedom of expression and religious beliefs and fair procedures, have been breached.
The case opened formally on Tuesday afternoon without Mr Burke being physically present because of his conduct in court earlier in the day.
After almost two hours of persistent interruptions by Mr Burke concerning discovery issues, during which the teacher frequently, and sometimes loudly, talked over the judge and counsel for the school, Mr Justice Alexander Owens told him he was in “obvious contempt” in the face of the court.
Mr Burke was warned that unless he agreed to abide by the court’s rulings, he would not be permitted into court at 2pm but would be provided with a remote link to the proceedings and could make submissions via that.
The judge told Mr Burke he was the “author of his own misfortune”, adding he could have imprisoned him for contempt. His decision came after a heated and lengthy row over the discovery of documents delayed the opening of the case.
In response to Mr Burke’s allegations that solicitors for the school had “tampered” with documents discovered by it, the judge ruled there was no evidence to support such claims and warned Mr Burke about making serious allegations against lawyers and others.
He also noted the school was prepared to address discovery issues raised by Mr Burke in a letter on Monday and in court.
Alex White SC, also for the school, had strongly refuted allegations of tampering and fraud levied by Mr Burke against the school’s solicitors. Mr Burke’s conduct made clear his intention was to “torpedo” the case, he said.
The judge had warned Mr Burke twice before 1pm that he might be held in contempt if he persisted with talking over the judge and counsel in a manner which prevented the school’s legal team opening the case.
At one point, the judge, asked Mr Burke: “What are we going to do with you, you test the patience of Job.” He warned Mr Burke to “stop lecturing me” and stressed that he, not Mr Burke, was the judge.
At 2pm, Mr Burke’s sister Ammi, mother Martina and brother Isaac, who were also in court in the morning, returned. Ammi Burke said Enoch was outside the courtroom and wished to address the judge but gardaí were not permitting him enter.
The judge told Ms Burke her brother would only be permitted entry if he made clear in advance to the court that he was prepared to abide by its rulings. If Mr Burke had behaved like this in a court in the US, he would “long ago” be in prison, the judge added.
After other exchanges, Ammi Burke claimed the judge’s position meant her brother had to confirm he agrees with “false and fraudulent” behaviour by solicitors for the school. The Burkes walked out of the courtroom as the judge was saying the court would ensure that Mr Burke would get justice.
“There they go, there’s no point on wasting my sweet words on the desert air,” the judge remarked.
Among those in the packed courtroom was Most Revd Patricia Storey, Church of Ireland Bishop of Meath and Kildare, who is patron of the school and one of three senior clerics subpoenaed by Mr Burke. Canon Alistair Graham, the judge was told, was unable to attend because of funeral duties on Tuesday and the Most Revd Ferran Glenfield, the Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh, was ill.
Mr Connaughton said the school will call various witnesses, including Ms McShane, but Mr Burke had told a judge last week he was the only witness for the defence and had said nothing about serving subpoenas.
Mr Burke was jailed for 108 days from last September over contempt of court orders restraining him attending the school pending the disciplinary process. His continuing contempt following his release has led to fines of €700 daily being imposed by the High Court on him since January 27th last.
Mr Burke’s separate appeal before an independent panel against a notice of dismissal served on him by the school board of management on January 20th has yet to be heard.
The case continues on Wednesday.