Agents of foreign state should not control our schools


We owe it to ourselves as a democracy to end the role of bishops as patrons of Catholic schools, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

THE VATICAN, in its refusal to deal with the Murphy commission on child abuse in the Dublin diocese, made it clear that it wishes to be regarded, not as a church organisation, but as a foreign state. Which raises the rather stark question: why do we allow a foreign state to appoint the patrons of our primary schools? If some weird vestige of colonial times decreed that the British monarch would appoint the ultimate legal controllers of almost 3,200 primary schools in our so-called republic, we would be literally up in arms. Why should we tolerate the weird vestige of an equally colonial mentality that allows a monarch in Rome to do just that?

Last week, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe told the Dáil that questions like these are of no importance because “the current management of schools is working exceptionally well. The patron is in place in terms of ethos but has nothing to do with the overall management of schools. That is the responsibility of the board of management.”

This is wildly inaccurate, not least because the boards of management are themselves both appointed by and accountable to the local bishop. The handbook given to every school principal on his or her appointment spells this out with admirable clarity: “In appointing the board of management of the school, the bishop delegates to the members certain responsibilities for the Catholic school in the parish. Such delegation carries a duty of accountability by the board of management to the bishop and – where appropriate – to the Department of Education and Science.” (Note that accountability to the State is qualified, that to the bishop is not.)

Batt O’Keeffe misled the Dáil (presumably through sheer ignorance rather than intent) when he claimed that the role of the bishop is confined to the ethos of the school. Again the handbook is unequivocal: “The bishop, as leader of the Catholic community in the diocese and as patron of the school, has ultimate responsibility for the school. The bishop delegates some of his responsibility to the board of management which is accountable to him. There will be contact between the board and the bishop on a number of specified issues – for instance, the appointment of the board, the appointment, suspension or dismissal of teachers, finance, school ethos.”

While the entire board of management is essentially a servant of the bishop, he has very specific powers in relation to its composition and functioning. The board’s chairperson is legally obliged, according to the Education Act (not a medieval statute but passed in 1998), to act on behalf of the bishop: “The chairperson shall be appointed by the patron and his/her authority shall derive from such appointment.”

There is a timid suggestion in the Act that the bishop in making this key appointment should “give due consideration to the opportunity to engage in a consultative process within the wider school community”. He may, of course, consider consulting the rest of the school and decide against it, or he may consult everyone and then do what he damn well pleases.

Crucially, the bishop as patron has a legal stranglehold over the appointment and dismissal of teachers. All Catholic schools are subject to what is called Maynooth Statute 262: “To avoid prejudice against the managership of schools, a clerical manager is forbidden to appoint any teacher or assistant, male or female, in National Schools until he shall have consulted, and obtained the approval of, the bishop: likewise a clerical manager shall not dismiss any teacher or assistant, male or female, or give notice of dismissal, until the bishop be notified, so that the teacher, if he will, may be heard in his own defence by the bishop.” Even the appointment of a special needs assistant requires the “prior approval” of the bishop.

The current line from both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael is not to defend the retention of these powers by unelected and unaccountable people who may or may not recognise Irish law, but to insist that they are little used. This is typical of the slithery sleeveenism that still infects Irish politics. Anti-democratic powers are okay so long as they are not used.

There are just two possibilities here. Either the statutory powers of the bishops have fallen into disuse, in which case who can object to the clearing away of this offensive anachronism? Or they have not fallen into disuse, in which case they remain as an affront to a republican democracy.

Even if the bishops were not collectively and institutionally incapable of putting the welfare of children first, the idea that the primary school system of a 21st century democracy should be ultimately controlled by the appointees of a foreign dictatorship would be shameful.

We need to grow up as a society, and that means growing out of our dependence on a 19th century instrument of power and control. Every intelligent theologian knows that that institution (as opposed to the faith it has distorted and betrayed) is effectively dead. It is long since time that politicians who claim to be republicans stopped prostrating themselves before its corpse.

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