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Christian patient finally allowed Sunday services

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A Christian patient’s request to have Sunday worship services at a medium secure mental health unit in East London have finally been granted after a year-long legal battle with the NHS on the grounds of religious discrimination.

Freddie O’Neil, 57, is a convicted rapist based in the secure unit at the John Howard Centre in Homerton, East London. He explains how he found Jesus in prison and “immersed [himself] in the Gospel.”

He initially raised his complaint with the John Howard Centre that there were no Sunday services for Christians after he was transferred there in January 2018. “I quickly realised that there were no Sunday services for Christians at the centre and no Christian input throughout the week,” he explained. “I relied on this so much for my well-being that I raised the question politely, but they just laughed and ignored me.”

As a result of his weekly requests falling on deaf ears, Freddie felt there was no option but to turn to the Christian Legal Centre (CLC) for support. A pre-action letter was then sent to the East London Foundation Trust in October 2018 stating that, as a Christian, Freddie needed to attend Sunday Christian services each week as well as receiving Holy Communion.

Freddie explained: “I found out that there had not been a Christian Sunday service at the Centre for ten years, yet Friday prayers for Muslims were being organised every week.”

A psychic administering Holy Communion

As part of the centre’s response to Freddie’s spiritual needs, a former Catholic priest turned spiritualist, Raphael Zernoff, was provided to support Christian patients’ spiritual needs and to provide Holy Communion.

On paper, Mr Zernoff was described as a ‘Spiritual Care and Catholic Coordinator’, however Mr Zernoff’s beliefs appear to fit more in line with Buddhism and New Age practices. In one of his self-published books, Unlearn What You Know, he states, “From the understanding of this triad of negative, positive and neutral you may come to a realisation that they are one in you and there is no such a thing as division. This is when you identify yourself as the creator of your life and its universe.”

On one of his YouTube videos (which was subsequently taken down when the centre was confronted with the prospect of legal proceedings), he described himself as a “writer, spiritual guide, channeler, psychic, life-guide and a lot of other identities.” In the video, Mr Zernoff discusses his spiritual awakening while meditating on the constellation Orion, and describes himself as a “specialist in reading people’s energy,” able to“detect people’s belief systems and therefore able to guide them through healing, self-awareness and into their preferred direction.”

Freddie’s ‘preferred spiritual direction’ at the John Howard Centre, however, was not adhered to by Mr Zernoff. Freddie described his experience with Mr Zernoff: “When Mr Zernoff first came to my bedside to administer Holy Communion, it was just weird. He said that he used to be a Catholic but was now a mystic who could help me. When he gave Holy Communion, he just passed me a wafer and said, ‘there you go’, and made no attempt to say the proper liturgy.

In response to the Christian Legal Centre raising concerns over Mr Zernoff’s suitability for the role, the John Howard Centre said that they could “not accept the criticism,” and that he took “great care when offering the sacrament.”

Failing to cater for Christians

This is not the first time that the East London Foundation Trust has been criticised for failing to cater for Christian needs. As far back as 2012, the Christian Legal Centre supported former occupational therapist Victoria Wasteney, who then worked as Head of Occupational Therapy at the trust. She had raised concerns that no provisions were being made for Christians in their care.

She noted how Christian groups were required to fit around managerial arrangements, whereas, by contrast, joint staff and patient Muslim fellowship meetings were always facilitated, regardless of any staffing issues.

Previously speaking to Christian Concern, she noted that, “there is undoubtedly a pattern of inequality of treatment of Christians and Muslims in the NHS. Regardless of allocated break times, Muslim staff can pray five times a day, which I am not objecting to, but Christians are often denied time off on Sundays or permission to take breaks during their lunchtime for prayer or religious worship.”

During her time at the trust, Victoria was active in sharing her faith with staff and patients. Yet despite her informal gatherings being popular with patients, Victoria met with resistance from staff members and, in 2016, lost her appeal over the freedom to talk to a Muslim colleague about her faith.

NHS centre breaching its own guidelines

In denying patients proper Sunday Christian services, the John Howard Centre was said to be not only discriminating against Christian patients on the grounds of religion, but also to be breaching a number of its legal obligations. This includes Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which describes the right of an individual to freely exercise their religious faith through worship and observance.

The centre was also in breach of NHS chaplaincy guidelines, especially in the context of a centre supporting patients with serious mental health issues, which state: “Recognising a person’s spiritual dimension is one of the most vital aspects of care and recovery in mental health. People who use services increasingly wish to have services view them as whole persons in the context of their whole lives; and spirituality and faith is a vital element in that.”

Months of back and forth correspondence ensued. The Christian Legal Centre said there must be weekly Sunday services for Christian patients, offered to find a minister or partner church to help, and suggested a meeting with the Spiritual, Religious and Cultural Care Team at the centre to try to find a way forward.

No progress was made, however, as the Centre continued to delay, deflect and deny Christian patients their rights and freedoms.

It took a further threat of legal action for the Centre to finally offer weekly Sunday Christian services, which began on Sunday 7 July 2019. There are now reportedly 6-8 people attending these services.

Grew up in care, abused by the system

Freddie has described his experience in the prison system: “I grew up in care and was abused by the system as a child and came into the adult world not knowing what God, family and love are.”

The English prison system has a long history of taking in an unrepresentative proportion of children in care. Nowadays, fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but they make up around two-thirds of children in secure training centres and young offender institutions. Furthermore, six in ten children sent to prison are reconvicted within a year of release, which rises to 68% of those serving sentences of less than six months.

For Freddie, becoming a Christian has provided him with the care and support that was lacking for so long: “I am a damaged person, a convicted criminal, but the only true redemption I have found in my life is hope in Jesus Christ. I rely on that input for my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. So when it was denied to me and instead I was provided with a psychic to administer Holy Communion, I knew I had to take a stand, not just for me, but for all the patients at the centre.

“I am pleased that Christian Sunday services have now started but I am concerned that they have still not been written into the curriculum in the same way as Friday Islamic prayers have.”

“Wholly inappropriate and disturbing”

Andrea Williams, Chief Executive of the Christian Legal Centre, said:“We are encouraged that the John Howard Centre has finally agreed to hold Sunday Christian services for its patients.

“All that the Christian patients at the centre wanted was to have a service and Holy Communion on a Sunday, which recognised the hope they have in Jesus Christ, and to exercise their faith in Him. This was not being taken seriously and what the centre was providing was wholly inappropriate and disturbing to already vulnerable patients.

“We have seen from a number of our cases that access to Christian input is under threat, not only in our prisons where the hope the Gospel is needed most, but also in the NHS. As Christians, we believe that Jesus forgives everyone who has faith I Him and who asks to be forgiven. We all have the freedom, no matter what we have done in our past, present or future, to know and worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

“We call on the John Howard Centre to be consistent in its approach to providing Christian services going forward.”