Scottish Catholic Church Archdiocese fined for safety breach which led to death of pensioner who fell 50ft from church loft

An Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic church in Scotland has been fined for breaching health and safety regulations which led to the death of a pensioner who fell 50ft from a church loft.

Tuesday, 6th July 2021, 6:20 pm
Christopher Duffy, 81, was found lying beside a broken ceiling tile on the floor of the Sacred Heart Church in Cumbernauld in June 2016. pic: Google
Christopher Duffy, 81, was found lying beside a broken ceiling tile on the floor of the Sacred Heart Church in Cumbernauld in June 2016. pic: Google

Christopher Duffy, 81, was found lying beside a broken ceiling tile on the floor of the Sacred Heart Church in Cumbernauld in June 2016. Mr Duffy was a volunteer at the church and a key holder and he had a duty to open up the church in the mornings.

Sheriff Morag Shankland told Airdrie Sheriff Court on Tuesday that contractors had previously warned of a safety risk in the loft space and advised that access to it should be restricted and the keys secured.

But the sheriff’s sentencing statement read: “The offender in this case failed to put in place sufficient control measures to secure the keys and thereby prevent access to the loft space in such a way that Mr Duffy was not exposed to the risk of such an accident occurring.”

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The trustees of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow Trust pleaded guilty to breaches under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and was fined £13,400.

Loyal church members

The sheriff said that Mr Duffy and his wife were committed and loyal members of the church in Cumbernauld for nearly 30 years and that they had been to their daily mass on the morning of June 6.

The resident parish priest, Father Campbell, had a conversation with Mr Duffy that morning about piping in the loft in relation to some work that was being carried out to install a lift into the church hall.

But his wife later called the chapel house because her husband had failed to return home for lunch, and a housekeeper subsequently found Mr Duffy lying on the church floor with no sign of life.

The sheriff’s statement read: “Lying beside him was a broken ceiling tile. An ambulance was called and Mr Duffy was pronounced dead by the paramedics. A post-mortem was later carried out and the cause of death was established as chest injuries due to a fall.

“The investigation concluded that Mr Duffy had fallen through the roof of the church some 50ft having accessed the loft space.”

It was unclear exactly why Mr Duffy went to the loft space but it is believed he may have decided, with good intentions, to have a look at the pipes in question himself.

The sheriff referred to a contractor’s building inspection done in 2004 which said the loft space should be restricted due to a health and safety risk identified in that area. A former priest had then ensured the door at the bottom of the staircase was locked and that the key at the time was hidden in a first aid box known only to himself and Mr Duffy. Access to the roof was for tidying gutters or fixing leaks and the loft enabled people to turn water on or off at the bulk water tank.

But in February 2015 the company raised the issue of access to the loft space with Father Campbell and he was told no one should access it and that the keys should be secured.

After this inspection, Father Campbell told Mr Duffy not to enter the loft space and to return his key to a locked cupboard in the chapel house - but he did not check to see if this request was complied with. Either way, Mr Duffy still had a key to this cupboard so he could have accessed the keys if he wanted.

Following his death, Mr Duffy was found to be in possession of a set of keys that opened the loft space access door.

The sheriff also said that once Mr Duffy climbed the staircase there was nothing to prevent anyone accessing the loft space. It appeared Mr Duffy walked along a walkway and had either fallen off the end of it or inadvertently stepped onto the roof tiles, which she described as “not weight bearing” and “in a fragile condition.”

‘Regret and sorrow’

The sheriff noted that, since the incident, the trustees have taken immediate steps to control the risk and the door at the bottom of the staircase is kept locked and the keys secured. A wall has also been put up at the landing leading to the loft to completely prevent access to the area where Mr Duffy fell.

The sheriff deemed the efforts made to address the risk were “insufficient” as no steps were taken to ensure he had returned his keys when requested, adding: “In my view greater efforts should have been taken to ensure that the keys could not be accessed by an individual on his own.”

The sheriff said Mr Duffy’s wife had subsequently died and that his family was represented in court by one of his five children.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese said: “ The Archdiocese wishes to express once more its regret and sorrow at the death of Mr Duffy.

“Although the tragic accident was unforeseeable and although steps had been taken to prevent such an occurrence, we accept fully the court's judgement. We continue to consult with health and safety experts to ensure that the highest standards of safety are implemented across all 91 churches in our care.”

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