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'Sham baptisms': Priests struggle with reasons behind the ceremony while parents feel hypocrital

Under the current system, children trying to get a place in a primary school can be divided into categories depending on their faith.

AS 96% OF Irish primary schools are religious-run, enrolment policies are coming under more and more scrutiny each September. In this three-day special series, TheJournal.ie explores the role religion plays in our classrooms and what’s being done in the sector.

WITH THE VAST majority of primary schools in Ireland being religious – non-religious parents are left battling it out for places at the few non-faith schools in the country.

But what if you don’t live near a non-faith school or what happens if there’s just no place for your child in one? 

Parents can feel their only guaranteed entry to a local school is to baptise their child.

Sham baptisms are something we can gather anecdotal evidence of but despite these countless stories, very few parents are willing to speak on the record – usually because their child is in a Catholic school solely because of that very baptism.

In many cases, it’s not just the parents who struggle with these type of baptisms – the priests who carry them out often grapple with what’s happening too.

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Figures show that in recent years, there are almost as many children baptised as are born. In 2014, 67,462 babies were born in Ireland and 67,071 children were baptised – a difference of just 391.

However, we cannot say that all of these babies were baptised on that year as the figures for infant baptisms include all children aged up to seven.

TheJournal.ie sought seperate figures for children under the age of one being baptised – but were told that these do not exist, making it impossible to calculate the exact percentage of babies that are being baptised every year.

According to a number of priests who spoke to this website, more and more children from non-religious families who attend Catholic schools are getting baptised aged around seven or eight – just in time for the Holy Communion sacrament.

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Describing the baptisms of children in cases where families are clearly not interested in religion, Fr Gerard O’Connor told TheJournal.ie:

I’ve had to do a bit of soul searching and ask myself if I’m doing the right thing.

“You journey with people and you politely engage with them and ask if they’ll be happy with this decision afterwards.”

‘Getting into school was the only reason’

“It was the most hypocritical thing I’ve ever done in my life by a long shot.” That’s how one father described his feelings after baptising his children so they could get into a primary school.

Eoin O’Brien – who lives in Glasnevin, Dublin with his wife and two young children – told TheJournal.ie how he felt forced to lie – and begin going to church – after baptising his children in the hope they would get into a religious school.

It was made absolutely clear to us they had to be baptised and it was made pretty much clear to us that we would have to be members of the congregation – to go to church.

O’Brien hadn’t baptised his children prior to this because both him and his wife are non-religious. They had put their first child down on waiting lists for three Educate Together schools, one of which his wife teaches in.

He explained that when it looked like they weren’t getting into an Educate Together – they started looking at other local schools, one that was Catholic and one that was Church of Ireland.

“We chose Church of Ireland because it was boys and girls in together, basically that was the reason.

I had an interesting conversation with my wife. She said, ‘There’s no way I’d baptise our children just for the purpose of getting them into school’ and I said, ‘Getting them into school is the only reason I’d baptise our children.’

O’Brien described how under the current system, children are divided into categories depending on their faith:

There are local Catholics (category one), then there are Catholics from further afield, Church of Ireland is category three, and then there are other Christians (four) and other religious (five) and then non religious is category six.

“Every penny that goes into those schools comes from taxpayers’ money so everybody should have equal rights but clearly we don’t.”

O’Brien said when the family started going to church, they were noticed because it was a small congregation of around 40 people.

“The very first day we went along we were surrounded by these Church of Ireland mothers and grannies and they were all asking questions, ‘Where do you go to Church?, How come we haven’t seen you here before? When are you going to sign up for Sunday school?’

I completely lied, I said all sorts of terrible things like religion is really important to me.  It’s terrible – these lovely people and I was forced to lie.

The family participated in going along to church services for an entire summer until they got a call in late August to say that their son had a place in another school.

“Literally the Friday before school started on the Monday we got a call from the principal of an Educate Together school.”

Priests questioning baptisms

Fr Gerard O’Connor has been based in Cherry Orchard, North Dublin for the past 13 years.

When asked about children being baptised so they can get a place in a primary school, O’Connor said he had “very few experiences of that”.

He said the situation where too many people are applying for a school and the baptism rule is used “didn’t apply much in our area”. ”We always filled the places we had but we didn’t have 60 children for 40 places.”

However, he added that he did come across cases where children get baptised so they can make their First Communion with their school friends.

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“I’d have more experiences of children who didn’t get baptised as babies and then want to make their First Communion wanting to get Baptised.

I would say five to six cases every year.

This point was also made by Father Dan Carroll who has been a priest for 36 years and is based in Kilkenny. He told this website:

“A number of children have come to be baptised aged seven or eight. They are enrolled in a Catholic school and then it becomes apparent that the child is not baptised to receive their First Holy Communion. I have participated in a number of these situations recently.

It’s something I wouldn’t have experienced 20 years ago.

Religious events like communions and confirmations are “knitted into the social fabric of Ireland”, according to senior pediatric psychologist at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Vincent McDarby.

He explained that even though it’s a religious event – it’s not really seen as religious at that age.

It’s a social event – it’s like Christmas or a birthday.

“They don’t really latch on the the religious context of it – they don’t really latch onto the religious aspect of Christmas either.”

McDarby, who is a member of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), added that these ceremonies are “a big thing to be left out of”.

In the playground, this is a big source of conversation ‘Did you get your suit or did you get your dress? What are you doing afterwards?’ That’s a big social thing that the child can be completely excluded from.

Birth rates and baptisms 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie from a park bench in St Stephens Green, Eoin O’Brien added how:

Most people who have been forced to baptise their children in order to get them into schools can’t speak out because they are still in that situation. I can only speak out about it because I got out at the last minute.

Baptism figures from the Statistical Yearbook of the Church reveal that huge numbers of children continue to be baptised in Ireland every year.

shutterstock_359099084 (1) Source: Shutterstock/Antonio Gravante

When compared to birth rate figures from the Central Statistics Office it can – at first glance – appear that 99% of children born in Ireland in 2014 were baptised as 67,462 births and 67,071 baptisms were recorded for that year alone.

However, the Catholic Communications Office said that the figures for ‘infant baptisms’ include all children aged up to seven and no further breakdown of ages are available.

This makes it very difficult to ascertain how many babies are being baptised each year in the Catholic Church – as all children aged under seven are listed as ‘infant baptisms’.

Looking back to 2012 – there was only a difference of 190 in the number of babies born (72,225) compared to the number of children baptised (72,035).

So while figures for recent years can show a very small difference in the number of children born and those baptised – this does not mean that the children who are being baptised were born in that year.

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In fact in some years previous to 2007, official figures reveal that more children were baptised in Ireland than were born in certain years.

Difficult situation 

Asked what he thinks of the situation where parents are baptising their children just to get into schools, Fr Carroll said:

“It’s a difficult one – ideally they should not come looking for the sole purpose of entering a school, I think that would be wrong if parents don’t have any faith.” However, he added:

In practice, it’s hard to judge if parents have even a small amount of faith that would be awakened and fanned into a flame.

“If parents want to get their children into a Catholic school, I can understand them going there … sure wouldn’t any of us do anything for our families?”

Meanwhile, Fr O’Connor described how some parents can struggle with their child wanting to make their First Communion as it goes against what they want and how they wanted to bring up their children.

“I would empathise with them if they’ve decided religion is not for them and they want their child to decide later if they are opposed to church – I would empathise wholly.”

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Local schools

One mother who felt forced to baptise her first child because she was living in Dublin at the time and concerned about a school place told TheJournal.ie how she believes religion has no place in State-run schools.

Ethna Quirke baptised her eldest son as she was living in Dublin at the time describing how “the deciding factor became school enrolment”.

Getting a school place in certain areas in Dublin is no easy task and Quirke described how, “We had the school form at home and we filled it out at the maternity hospital.”

The family moved to Carlow when her son was two years old and he now attends the local Catholic school. However, her other children have not been baptised.

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Quirke described how even though there is an Educate Together school in Carlow, that would mean removing the children from their local community and adding a long school run into the day.

Her eldest son is now reaching First Communion age but he won’t be making the sacrament, instead he will stay behind with an older class while his class prepares.

Quirke said, “He’s ok with this. He believes in science and evolution.” Describing how religion still plays a part in her son’s education, she said:

He goes to the school masses, he’ll come home and say ‘We had mass today’.

Quirke said she has not specifically asked for him to opt out of all religion classes but speaking about her son attending the masses, she added, “If I knew when it was on, I’d probably drop him in later.”

Chairperson of Atheist Ireland, Michael Nugent says that “schools are obliged to provide for children who opt out of religious instruction”.

“It’s a constitutional right and it’s part of a duty for the schools as part of getting State funding to respect the Constitution.

If they’re saying – as they do – that they can’t provide it then they need to rebudget so they can meet their constitutional obligations.

“There’s no reason for forcing a child who has opted out of religious instruction to sit at the back of the class, because they are still going to be absorbing it anyway, and they’ll still be coming home singing hymns and telling their parents that God did this, that and the other.”

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How inclusive?

Describing the local primary school of St Ultan’s, Fr O’Connor said there were 11 different nationalities and nine different religious backgrounds in the school.

“You’d have a lot of families settling in Ireland. Sometimes they’d be Christians but not Catholic but they’d be happy to have their children baptised and participate.

I found anger is more likely in Irish parents who feel the Catholic Church in Ireland over dominates and over controls.

Describing how he always felt the school was “super inclusive”, Fr O’Connor said that at key times in the calendar there would be a day focusing on different religions such as Hinduism and it would permeate the culture of the school and time would be put aside to do mindfulness and meditation.

However, he added that when he debates with a parent who has no faith he doesn’t always feel enough is being done.

“When you hear those stories you think – I thought I was inclusive, but I’m not as inclusive as I thought I was.”

Is there a place for religion in our schools? 

Asked if he thinks religion has a place in our classrooms, Fr O’Connor said, “I like the idea that a school would have an ethos – be it one rooted in secular or religious ones.

I think it’s good for schools to have an ethos but I think in that they should always be challenged to be as inclusive as possible.

“We could create upside down upheaval in our education system and damage our quality education if we were to do it too quickly or too speedily.”

He also stated that he is an “enthusiastic supporter of Educate Together” and “welcomes a changing Ireland”.

“I think that parents want the best for their school and those that are faith filled will want their children to get instruction in their faith.”

Fr Carroll said, “I think I would be sad if it was taken out of schools.

It is desired by parents and appreciated by most parents in my experiences.

However, Carlow mother Ethna Quirke disagreed, stating, “I know faith is extremely important to countless people and I respect that and champion their right to celebrate it, in their own time and at their own expense.

Ireland is not a Catholic country anymore. We have sex before we get married, we use contraception, we “allow” same sex marriage, we get divorced – all things the Catholic Church says are wrong. Our culture is diverse, many nationalities, religions and none.

“I believe faith is a personal experience, which should be taught by the church, in conjunction with parents, outside of school hours.”

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Read: Religious education in schools: Two sets of rights in conflict>

Read: ‘It tends not to be prime property that’s handed over’: 8 schools opened in 3 years under divestment>

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