Bishops deny pushing school agenda


THE CATHOLIC bishops have rejected a contention that the programme to teach religion to pupils in community national schools was proposed and designed by the Catholic Church.

A report on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme yesterday said new details had emerged about commitments given by the Department of Education to the Catholic Church about the teaching of religion in the new schools.

Based on documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, the report said the church was given guarantees that Catholic children in the schools would receive a full separate Catholic religious education, even though it was clear they would be in a minority.

Community national schools are multidenominational and are run by Vocational Education Committees. The first such schools opened in 2008.

In a statement responding to the RTÉ report, the Council for Education of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference said its representatives were invited to meet Department of Education officials on April 27th, 2007 as part of a consultation process concerning the new community schools.

At that meeting the church representation proposed “that teachers delivering religious instruction to Catholic students be duly qualified,” the bishops’ statement said.

The church had also proposed “that the curriculum dealing specifically with the religious instruction of Catholic children be in accordance with the provisions approved by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference”. The actual programme in religious education was not discussed, the statement added.

The bishops recalled that the announcement of the new community national schools was welcomed by Bishop Leo O’Reilly, then chairman of the Bishops’ Commission for Education. He said: “We believe that it is important to accommodate the rights and needs of people of different faith backgrounds, and of none, to an education which reflects, as far as possible, their sincerely held convictions and values.”

Yesterday, former general secretary of the Catholic Primary School Management Association Msgr Dan O’Connor told The Irish Times its policy was that “the minimum non-negotiable requirement” for new VEC-run multi-denominational primary schools would be “religious instruction and formation of the Catholic children by a qualified teacher”.

This was a recommendation by the association to the bishops in 2004, he said, and was repeated at a meeting with Department of Education officials on April 2nd, 2007.

Minutes of that meeting were among hundreds of documents released by the department and upon which the Morning Ireland report was based. They record that in November 2008, then minister for education Batt O’Keeffe “reaffirmed his commitment to provide a faith-specific religious education programme for Catholic pupils of the new community national schools whose parents opt for such a programme”.