Punishing a Nurse for God-Talk

Steamrolled by the wrath of the state.

“The first office of justice is to keep one man from doing harm to another,” wrote Marcus Tullius Cicero in his classic treatise De Officiis  (On Duties/Obligations). 

“What harm did Sister Sarah Kuteh do to her patients for the gavel of justice to smash her like a sledgehammer crushes an acorn?” the Roman statesman, orator, lawyer and philosopher would ask Martin Kurrein, the learned employment judge delivering the heavy-handed jolt of justice at Kuteh’s trial

The mother-of-three born in Sierra Leone and commended by her colleagues as “a good, hard-working person and good with patients,” even “kind” and bringing “a different kind of experience,” was steamrollered by the wrath of the State not because she harmed her patients through medical negligence.

Sarah’s crime was to occasionally engage patients in small talk about religion.

Britain’s state-run health provider requires patients to fill out a form that has a question about the patient’s religion and if they are ‘practising.’ This is partly to connect patients with chaplains in the National Health Service’s (NHS). The NHS employs its God-squad, who, in turn, are responsible for spiritual and pastoral care and run chapels or prayer rooms in every hospital in Britain.  

Sarah sometimes extended a conversation on the question of the patient’s religion. If the patient was a practising Christian, she might engage in a chat along the lines of “what church do you go to?” If it seemed that the patient welcomed this kind of conversation, Sarah might share her own experience of how Jesus turned her life around.

If the patient indicated they did not want to talk about religion, she immediately applied the brake, said Kuteh, who was employed by the Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford, Kent.

As far back as I can remember, my doctors and other medical professionals in India and in Britain have always engaged in such innocuous chitchat when I pop in for treatment. If they see the dog collar around my neck, there’s often a question about which church I pastor. If I report a throat infection, there’s a conversation about my preaching. If I’m worn out, there’s mischievous banter about whether the bishop or the congregation is giving me a hard time. I love it!

It’s the innoxious discourse of a meowing pussycat and only someone with a pathological aversion towards religion could construe it as the ugly and alarming roar of a hungry tiger. Hmm… I do know people who hate pussycats. But civilised people don’t skin cats for sporadically meowing outside their door. If a “Shoo kitty! Go away!” does the job, say it and be done.

Part of Sarah’s problem is cultural. In Sierra Leone, as in most parts of the non-Western world, religion is neither privileged nor compartmentalised. Words like “church” or “Bible” roll off the tongue of a Pentecostal African as easily as “Manchester United” or “Everton” gush from the mouths of nine million Brits who say football is their religion. Sarah’s faith is part of Sarah’s identity as a human being.

Sarah’s cultural quandary also stems from the hypocritical and two-faced faux politeness of middle Englanders. Watch the sitcom Fawlty Towers and you’ll spot it. When hotel manager Basil Fawlty asks his customers about the service they will earnestly nod and tell him how wonderful it is, even though it’s rotten. Then, before you can say “Bernard Montgomery,” they will complain like crickets on a summer’s day (behind your back).

Sarah had only one Fawlty-like formal complaint against her. This was from a patient who indulged in reminiscences of how he had sung in choirs, and sang Psalm 23 to Sarah over the half-completed NHS form. He later claimed she had pressurised him to sing; and it was only due to the shock that he failed to think of anything better than to oblige!

Singing “The Lord is my Shepherd” must have really triggered off some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in him and caused an awful lot of harm, eh, Cicero, old chap?

Sarah came under the cosh in April 2016 when her boss told her that three patients had “verbally” complained about her “inappropriate” conversations. The “complaints” were only recorded some three months after they were allegedly made. Two months later she was suspended pending a disciplinary investigation and told she had breached the Nursing and Midwifery Code by expressing her “personal beliefs (including political, religious or moral beliefs) to people in an inappropriate way” (20.7).

“How do you define ‘inappropriate,’” James Boswell would have asked Samuel Johnson. ‘Cos, m’lord, the fate of Sarah Kuteh hangs on that one word, as a spider kiting through the air hangs on a single silken thread (which is stronger than high-grade alloy steel and half as strong as aramid filaments like Kevlar).  

“Justice should remove the bandage from her eyes long enough to distinguish between the vicious and the unfortunate,” as American lawyer, politician and orator Robert G. Ingersoll once quipped. Because, as French dramatist Jean Racine would say: “extreme justice is often injustice.”

But the presence of a judge doesn’t assure justice any more than the presence of a cook guarantees a delicious meal and Judge Kurrein subverted the mechanism of a fair trial by refusing to allow Pavel Stroilov, Kuteh’s Christian Legal Centre advocate to discuss the definition and application of what was “inappropriate” in Sister Sarah’s god-talk.

If something is “inappropriate,” that implies, argued Stroilov, “appropriate” ways for a nurse to express her religious beliefs. “How do you understand the distinction between appropriate and inappropriate?” Stroilov asked the manager who dismissed Sarah.

You don’t need to be an Oxford Dictionary lexicographer to know that words like “appropriate” and “reasonable” are more slippery than eels in the Thames. The word takes its application from the circumstances and is really dependent on context. What is appropriate in one context or in one given circumstance may not be appropriate in another. There is no blanket, objective definition or application of “inappropriate,” unless it can be proved to be explicitly homophobic, bigoted, racist, sexist, intolerant, abusive or hateful.

Further, one person’s “appropriate” is another person’s “inappropriate.” Is a workplace discussion about who slept with whom at the office Christmas party appropriate or inappropriate? For a conservative Ghanaian, such sex-talk would be offensive. For a promiscuous Briton who has abandoned traditional sexual ethics, this is the staple of Channel 4’s Big Brother TV series.

It all depends on your subjective response—in other words, your feelings! And so, after going round and round the mulberry bush, Kuteh’s manager Mrs Collins, finally trotted out the “feelings, not facts” trope. “If it makes a patient feel uncomfortable, then yes, it is inappropriate,” she told the court.

Obviously, Collins and Kurrain have never studied communication theory. What matters in an act of communication is (a) how one speaks, AND (b) how one listens. What is appropriate or inappropriate in a particular context is to judge both (a) and (b) with unbiased rigour.

Not surprisingly, Stroilov, Kuteh’s lawyer, fired his kill shot and asked: “You can’t know in advance whether someone would be offended by a comment, can you?” Guess what happened? Judge Kurrein inappropriately interrupted. He didn’t let the witness answer.

Kurrein shot back with revealing candour: “Yes, exactly, you can’t know that. That is why you shouldn’t make the comment. … Many people are not religious and there are many people that object. It is a subject fraught with difficulty and as a consequence people should not express anything about their own beliefs without it first being raised as a question by anyone else.”

Gotcha! Finally, someone said it openly! The unwritten rule, which applies to Christian employees, is exactly this: believe what you like, just keep your mouth shut about it at work otherwise we’ll crush you like the cockroaches you are.

“I did not accept Mr Stroilov’s position that consideration of these issues required a deep philosophical enquiry as to what precisely was meant by the word ‘inappropriate’ in the NMC Code of Conduct,” Judge Kurrein wrote in his judgment.

The justice system in any society implies the existence of a moral code. “Law and morality are not coextensive, but to a significant degree what a society chooses to punish is a proxy for what it deems unacceptable, reprehensible, or immoral. Moreover, the way that a society chooses to enforce its laws, the practices it sanctions … also reveals the community’s moral thinking,” writes Indian-born American Sikh attorney Preet Bharara in Doing Justice: A Prosecutor's Thoughts on Crime, Punishment, and the Rule of Law.

To charge a human being with a crime is to shatter that person’s life. A defendant, even if acquitted, will never be the same again. One may be ostracized, bankrupt, unemployed, or unemployable, writes Bharara.

Kuteh’s career as a nurse is finished because Britain’s new morality deems it unacceptable, reprehensible, and immoral for Christians to talk about their faith in public.

Kuteh has been condemned by a Javert-like judge who betrayed his bias during the trial when he sneeringly said: “My knowledge about religion is lacking. I apologise if I offended anyone.”  

Is it just possible that Judge Kurrein was wreaking his own vengeance against the wrath of the State that had punished him for “inappropriate” behaviour?

On 12 July 2016, the Judicial Conduct Investigations Office issued a statement against Kurrein. It stated: “Employment Judge Martin Kurrein was subject to a conduct investigation following a complaint about his behaviour during court proceedings.”

“The Lord Chancellor and the Senior President of the Tribunals considered that Judge Kurrein used both an inappropriate tone and inappropriate language with a party during the hearing over which he presided. They found that Judge Kurrein’s behaviour failed to demonstrate the standards expected of a judicial office holder and have issued him with formal advice.” (Italics mine)

Cicero would hardly applaud the Court of Appeal’s refusal to redress the injustice meted out to Sarah Kuteh in itsjudgement last week.

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