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Dublin: 8°C Sunday 18 April 2021

The Catholic Church should not have control of our children's education

Campaigner Andrew Madden picks up on Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s speech about the future of the Catholic Church in Ireland – and argues that it shouldn’t be in the classroom.

Andrew Madden Author of Altar Boy, a Story of Life After Abuse. Spent over 15 years campaigning for the safety, welfare, and protection of children and was the first person in Ireland to go public about clerical child sexual abuse in 1995

I READ WITH interest Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s speech ‘Keeping The Show On The Road’ delivered to The Cambridge Group for Irish Studies, Magdalene College, Cambridge this week.

Most of his speech chronicles the decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland and suggests how the Church might change if it is to avoid becoming utterly irrelevant to most people in this country, but I was most interested in his views on the Catholic Church and its patronage of so
many of our primary schools.

Diarmuid Martin reminds us that as Archbishop of Dublin he is patron of about 470 primary schools: he is responsible for the management of the ethos of those schools, for senior appointments and he points out he is the one who can be sued when legal action takes place.

As Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin is patron of about 93% of all primary schools in the Archdiocese of Dublin while at the same time he admits that only 18% of Catholics in Dublin attend Mass. Nationally there are approximately 3,280 national schools in the Irish Republic and about 3,032 of them are managed by the Catholic Church. These schools have, for the most part, been built by the taxpayer, are maintained by the taxpayer and the majority of the salaries of teachers working in the schools are paid by the taxpayer – but they are still considered to be ‘Catholic schools’ and even worse, the view of the Catholic Church is that the children of Catholic parents have first claim on admission to such schools.

The idea that parents who can produce Catholic Baptismal Certificates for their children can have first claim on access to a taxpayer funded public service is totally unacceptable. The Catholic Church admits children of other faiths into schools only where possible, in keeping with Catholic Church ethos, and provided that those schools have places and resources – also totally unacceptable.

I believe the State should be responsible for the management and provision of schools and education that is funded by the taxpayer. You would be forgiven for thinking the state is responsible but it is not. In a civil action taken by a woman who had been sexually assaulted as a child by her school principal, it was determined that the Minister for Education is this country has no legal responsibility for teachers whose salaries are paid by the Department of Education.

This is because the Department is not considered to be the employer of teachers in national schools. Despite paying the salaries of teachers and determining their terms and conditions of employment, the Department of Education is not the employer of teachers in
this State. And as Archbishop Martin points out, in Dublin he is the person to be sued when legal action takes place.

I agree with Diarmuid Martin when he says that Irish government has been very slow in providing a plurality of patronage models. In 2008 the government announced a pilot scheme in which the State, through the VEC, would control one primary school in Dublin 15 saying it was looking to provide this type of alternative “where a traditional patron is not available”.

This is far from the proactive stance that is required. The government should be actively working to provide parents with choice in relation to the type of school they send their children to. Indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that ‘Parents shall have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children’ – very difficult for parents to exercise this right when over 90% of schools are managed by the Catholic Church.

For too long government has maintained the position of keeping itself removed from its responsibilities by allowing the Catholic Church to manage schools, leaving local Boards of Management with the authority to sack teachers, whose lifestyles they may not approve of,
but whose salaries they do not pay.

In an ideal world I would prefer to see all children educated in non-denominational schools leaving them free to learn about religion at home or in church. But I am also a firm believer of choice in as many areas of life as possible so let there be they religious schools, let there be private schools, but also let the government start providing education for our children in State schools on State land where the Department of Education takes full responsibility for all aspects of the education of the children and the management of the school and let them match the high standards of education as delivered by other patrons.

No more schools should be built by the state on land owned by the Catholic Church. It is not necessary for the state to purchase lots of land on which to start building new non/multi-denominational schools, we already own the so called Catholic schools, as I said earlier we
built them and we maintain them.

The Catholic Church should hand over to the people of Ireland some of the schools currently under their patronage and this transfer should include ownership of the land on which the schools have been built. The Church’s Education Commission and Archbishop Martin, have
already expressed some interest in the patronage of schools changing hands but it should be remembered that neither the Commission nor the Archbishop constitute the Catholic Church in Ireland.

There are many other bishops in the country running their dioceses with autonomy and parents having access to choice should not be dependent on the local bishop’s agreement.

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However even those bishops who do agree to handing over some schools to alternative patrons have said there will be a price: they expect to be compensated. Their request for compensation should be considered in the context of the huge compensation bill payable as a result of offences committed against children by members of the religious orders. In its considerations of the settlement of that compensation bill the government
should include an intention to acquire ownership of the land some of our schools are built on so that real progress can be made in providing parents with choice. There should be no question of the Catholic Church receiving any taxpayer’s money in this context. It should be
done because it’s the right thing to do.

It should also be noted that the Church’s Education Commission said in the document, Catholic Primary Schools – A Policy for Provision into the Future, that where schools were transferred out of Catholic patronage those new patrons should include Catholic religious
instruction as part of the school curriculum. Religious education, where children learn about many different religions, is already part of the curriculum in multi-denominational schools but religious instruction in a particular religion is conducted after school hours and in accordance with parents’ wishes.

When schools are transferred out of Catholic Church patronage, the curriculum of the schools is no longer any of their business and any attempts
to exert such improper control in our schools should not be tolerated.
Taking some schools out of Catholic patronage would not solve the current problem but, coupled with a cessation of building new schools on Catholic Church land, it would be a very good place to start. Such schools would then be managed by the state or other patrons and the process of providing more choice for parents would be impressively advanced.

In addition to this, to further increase diversity, the government should increase its funding of Educate Together Schools. Educate Together aims to meet a growing need in Irish society for schools that recognise the developing diversity of Irish life and the modern need for democratic management structures.

In particular, Educate Together guarantees children and parents of all faiths and none equal respect and equal access to education, including the
operation and management thereof. The Government would argue that it is providing funding for these schools but the level of funding is not meeting the level of demand and consequently Educate Together cannot offer as many places to children as are required by their parents who are seeking an alternative to schools offering education with a Catholic ethos.

So there may still be a role for the Catholic Church in schools or in education to facilitate those parents who still want that for their children, but at present the role of the Catholic Church in our education system is improper and the way forward is for the government to more fully embrace State run national schools and to increase funding for alternative patrons considerably.

Read Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s speech, ‘Keeping the Show on the Road’>

About the author:

Andrew Madden  / Author of Altar Boy, a Story of Life After Abuse. Spent over 15 years campaigning for the safety, welfare, and protection of children and was the first person in Ireland to go public about clerical child sexual abuse in 1995

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