Christian inmate claims it took threat of legal action for NHS Trust to provide Sunday services


A convicted rapist who became a Christian in prison has claimed that repeated requests for Sunday worship services were only granted after the threat of legal action. 

Freddie O'Neil, 57, said he decided to "take a stand" against the John Howard Centre, in Homerton, after finding upon his transfer to the secure unit in January 2018 that there were no Sunday services for Christians.

He said he relied upon the services "for my physical, emotional and spiritual well-being".

He claimed that he was a victim of religious discrimination after his requests for the services were reportedly turned down, despite Muslim inmates being allowed Friday prayers. 

The East London Foundation Trust (ELFT), which runs the centre, denies religious discrimination.

The Christian Legal Centre (CLC) took up his case and wrote to the centre on his behalf, advising that Mr O'Neil needed to attend Christian services on Sunday and receive Holy Communion. 

The CLC said that the denial of these services was "wholly inappropriate and disturbing to already vulnerable patients".

Initially, the CLC says that the Trust responded by providing a spiritualist and psychic to conduct the services and Holy Communion for Mr O'Neil.  It said, however, that the spiritualist's beliefs "could not be considered as representing orthodox Christianity". 

The CLC said the centre breached NHS chaplaincy guidelines "recognising a person's spiritual dimension" as "one of the most vital aspects of care and recovery in mental health", and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which includes the right of an individual to freely exercise their religious faith through worship and observance.

It said that after months of delays and a further threat of legal action, the centre finally started offering proper weekly Sunday services on 7 July.  There are now reportedly six to eight people attending these services.

Mr O'Neil said: "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. 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."

Following the commencement of weekly Sunday services, the CLC has dropped its threat of legal action against the centre, but Andrea Williams, CLC chief executive, warned that the centre needed to be "consistent" in its provision of Christian services going forward.

"We are encouraged that the John Howard Centre has finally agreed to hold Sunday Christian services for its patients," she said. 

"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 of the Gospel is needed most, but also in the NHS.

"As Christians, we believe that Jesus forgives everyone who has faith in 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."

A spokesperson for the John Howard Centre and the ELFT said that both had provisions in place to cater for the needs of Christian patients.

"The Spiritual and Religious Department at the John Howard Centre make sure all spiritual and religious faiths are catered for and have dedicated Christian ministers who work diligently to attend to individual service users' needs," the spokesperson said. 

"The sacrament of Holy Communion is offered to all Christians at the centre, with a weekly Christian service available for all to attend.

"The Trust does refute the claim that we were discriminatory in the provision of religious service at the John Howard Centre.

"Every effort was made to ensure that people of all faiths had access to a minister of their choosing and appropriate worship services. A regular Sunday service was re-established this month in order to further meet the needs of all. "