Female minister awarded nearly $600,000 for sexual harassment from congregation

Presbyterian Church removed her from her ministry because of deteriorating relationship with congregation that didn’t want a woman as minister

A Presbyterian minister in Prince Edward Island was discriminated against by her own church on the basis of sex, the P.E.I. Human Rights Commission has ruled.

Gael Matheson had been a minister for four congregations around Murray Harbour, P.E.I., since 1983. After a two-year probationary period, she was reappointed to full status.

Despite the fact ordaining women had been approved by the Presbyterian church in 1966, there was still resistance to the policy in some circles. Matheson became aware of this fact when, in 1986, she began receiving anonymous letters containing Bible verses against women in the clergy. The letters, which also accused Matheson of having a lesbian affair and abusing members of the girls’ choir, were traced to a woman her congregation. However, the accusation couldn’t be definitively proven and Matheson was forced to apologize.

In 1988, a member of a church committee began stalking Matheson. He was removed from the church and convicted of stalking.

The P.E.I. branch of the church responded to the problems with an investigation. It cleared Matheson of the lesbianism and child abuse charges but felt the relationship between her and the church was damaged beyond repair. She was removed from her post in 1996 and told she would have to undergo a personal and professional assessment before assuming another minister post. She refused and hasn’t worked as a minister since. Matheson filed a complaint with the P.E.I. Human Right Commission in 1998.

The commission tribunal ruled the letters and stalking constituted sexual harassment and the church had not sufficiently defended Matheson from the harassment. It found the congregation had failed to provide a workplace that wasn’t hostile and firing her because of the problems caused by the harassment was sexual harassment itself.

“Individuals can believe what they want, however, the employer has a duty to provide a workplace that is not hostile to female clergy,” the tribunal said.

Matheson was awarded more than $425,000 in lost wages, $50,000 in damages for the sexual harassment and more than $102,000 in legal fees.

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