The former principal of Wilson’s Hospital School in Co Westmeath was “absolutely horrified” when teacher Enoch Burke interrupted a school religious service asking her to withdraw her “demand” that teachers “accept transgenderism”, the High Court has heard.
Niamh McShane said she also felt “agitated” and “hunted” when Mr Burke approached her at the end of a dinner following the service on June 21st last. He again asked her to withdraw her “demand” and stood so close to her that, although he was not spitting at her, she “could feel his spittle”.
She said she never asked teachers to “accept transgenderism” and her request to teachers, made on May 9th by email, was to support a transitioning student in their request to be addressed by their new preferred name and the pronoun they. This was “very different” to asking them “to accept transgenderism”.
Ms McShane was embarrassed when Mr Burke stood up as a bishop was about to deliver the concluding prayer at the religious service, before a congregation including staff, students, community leader and clergy, and spoke for about 2½ minutes.
She considered his challenge to her direction in such a public manner was “disrespectful” and saw sixth year students walk out of the chapel as he was speaking. She was “absolutely horrified” for the transitioning student, by Mr Burke’s remarks.
She said Mr Burke previously made a “significant challenge” to her request when he alleged, in an email sent on May 10th last, that a “belief system” was being forced on students.
Before this, she had had mainly positive encounters with Mr Burke concerning conflicts between his very strong Christian beliefs and events in the school, and had hoped they could work through it.
A similar request she made to teachers in November 2021 to address another transitioning student by their preferred name and using they had gone unchallenged, the court heard.
Ms McShane said, after reflecting on the events of June 21st and taking advice, she decided Mr Burke’s behaviour had to be treated as a serious disciplinary matter and prepared a report for the board of management.
It was important for the school to uphold its own ethos and to support students and Mr Burke, she believed, had broken the code of conduct for teachers for reasons including he had not been caring or fair. His behaviour in suggesting she had asked him to “accept transgenderism” was “very serious” and she was afraid for the well-being of students and the teacher-student relationship.
Her view was that Mr Burke had engaged in “gross misbehaviour” and was “entrenched” in his position.
She agreed that dismissal is among the options available under the stage four disciplinary procedure which was invoked. Her own view was that she would not engage with Mr Burke again on the matter and it was necessary to move to stage four.
She did not believe she had made “findings” in her report to the board or that it exaggerated what went on in the school chapel. She had attended a disciplinary meeting held by the board of management on January 19th last, which resulted in Mr Burke being served a notice of dismissal, which he has appealed.
Mr Burke and other members of his family were present and their “loud and clear message” was they were objecting to the meeting proceeding. The meeting did proceed and she delivered her report, shouting to be heard over the Burkes. Mr Burke was asked if he wished to ask her questions but he did not ask her anything.
Ms McShane was giving evidence on Wednesday, the second day of the school’s action against Mr Burke, in which the core issue is whether he was wrongly suspended on full pay from his teaching position in August 2022 pending a disciplinary process.
Mr Burke denies any misconduct 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 belief, have been breached.
The case is proceeding without Mr Burke participating either by attending court or by joining by remote link.
Arising from his conduct in court on Tuesday, including two hours of persistent submissions and interruptions over discovery issues, Mr Justice Alexander Owens ruled he was in “obvious contempt” in the face of the court.
Mr Burke is excluded from physical participation in the case until he agrees to obey the court’s directions but has been told he could participate by remote link.
On Wednesday, the case proceeded without Mr Burke participating. Before the evidence began, the judge said he was satisfied with the school’s proposals for addressing the discovery issues raised by Mr Burke.
In evidence later on Wednesday, Catherine Gibson Brabazon said she was involved with the school in various capacities over years and was at the June 21st religious service.
She was “horrified” when Mr Burke, whom she did not then know, “essentially hijacked the service” towards its end and delivered a “diatribe” and “a very personal attack” on Ms McShane which she could not “make head or tail of”.
She approached Mr Burke afterwards, asking him who he was, he told her, said he was a teacher and went into a “diatribe”. She told him he should consider his position before walking wway. At the dinner afterwards, she witnessed another woman, a student’s mother, physically preventing Mr Burke from moving towards Ms McShane, she said.
The case continues on Thursday.