Catholics entitled to their schools


OPINION:A mature democracy respects pluralism and diversity – that includes schools reflecting a Catholic ethos, writes LEO O'REILLY

THE APPALLING abuse by priests of innocent children highlighted in the Murphy report and the pain caused to their families, along with the associated cover-up and betrayal of trust by bishops, have understandably raised the issue of the role of bishops as patrons of Catholic schools.

Fintan O’Toole writes (Opinion, December 8th) that because we live in a democracy we should remove Catholic bishops from acting as patrons of schools. His reason is that, as bishops, they are appointed by the Pope and therefore their position as patrons of our schools is a violation of our sovereignty.

He is joined by Mary Raftery (Opinion, December 15th) who invites us to “ponder carefully” the implications for parents “as long as each local bishop is enshrined in law as patron of all Catholic schools”.

Catholic school patrons are not appointed by the Pope. Whether Catholic or otherwise, a patron can only be recognised and registered as such by the Minister for Education. Thus no person can act as a patron unless recognised in law by the Minister.

All patrons are fully accountable to the law of the land for the responsibilities which they exercise for the schools under their patronage. However, in all schools, whoever the patron, complete responsibility for running the schools rests with the board of management.

Regarding the appointment of boards, the patron’s role is in no sense autonomous. In common with other patron bodies, Catholic patrons nominate only two members out of a board of eight. While the patron appoints all the board members, these appointments are subject to the sanction of the Minister.

Equally, while teachers appointed by the board are subject to the approval of the patron, this approval may only be withheld by the patron for the most serious reasons given in writing to the board. All such appointments are also subject to the sanction of the Minister.

Both commentators strongly articulate an anger and frustration with the church that rightly exists in the aftermath of the Murphy report. Irish bishops responded last week to the report in a statement which was fully reproduced in this paper.

Referring to the failings in the archdiocese of Dublin at that time, the bishops said: “The avoidance of scandal, the preservation of the reputations of individuals and of the church, took precedence over the safety and welfare of children. This should never have happened and must never be allowed to happen again.”

Where schools are concerned rigorous guidelines and procedures are in place to ensure that such abuse does not happen again. These guidelines and procedures are not those of the church but of the State and they apply equally to all schools, Catholic or otherwise.

The Department of Education issued child protection guidelines and procedures to all primary schools in 2001. In 2004 the child protection guidelines for post-primary schools were published. These guidelines are based on the Children First national guidelines issued in 1999 by the Department of Health and Children. All these guidelines apply to all schools irrespective of their patronage.

Schools’ policies and their implementation are monitored on an ongoing basis by the department’s schools inspectorate.

On the criticism of the presence of priests in schools and their membership of boards of management, a priest like anyone else, is obliged to comply with the child protection guidelines in force in the school. Any visitor to a school may meet children only in the presence of their classroom teacher and priests are no different.

Both O’Toole’s and Raftery’s arguments imply that schools should adopt a neutral stance in relation to religion. Their inference is that religion is a matter of personal choice and should be kept in the private sphere.

However, those who would exclude religion from school also espouse an ethos of their own. They impart a world view, a philosophy of life, just as much as the person of faith. Schools that exclude religious instruction are not neutral in their stance.

The Catholic philosophy of education maintains that education is for life, and religion is, for many people, an integral aspect of life. Others embrace a philosophy of life which excludes religion. We respect their freedom to do that.

There is a need for pluralism of education in Ireland so that parents have a choice, as far as possible, about what kind of school their children will attend. This right to parental choice in education is recognised in most democracies and enshrined in our Constitution.

Nobody denies that there are many primary schools under Catholic patronage. In a changing Ireland additional forms of patronage are emerging. We have welcomed this and last month Catholic school patrons began discussions with the Department of Education about the transfer of patronage.

This must be planned locally and based on parental choice. Parental choice means the wishes of all parents, as far as possible, must be respected, including those of Catholic parents.

O’Toole’s wish is that we become a mature democracy. I couldn’t agree more. I believe a mature democracy should respect pluralism and diversity. It should value and welcome the participation of the various groups in society which have contributions to make to the common good.

In Ireland we have a church, at institutional level, in crisis caused by horrific abuse of children and compounded by serious failure by bishops. But we see also thousands of well-functioning schools under Catholic patronage subject to the child protection laws and guidelines of the State.

We also see more than 20,000 lay volunteers managing parish schools at local level and providing an outstanding example of participatory democracy in our society. This is a model of practical subsidiarity at work for the benefit of children in Catholic schools and their parents.

I pray that it will continue and flourish in the future.

Bishop Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore is chairman of the Bishops’ Commission on Education

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