Sunday, April 18, 2010

Time Catholic Church Got Out Of Our Schools

By Jennifer O’Connell

It was one of those funerals at which you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: laugh at the spectre of grown women trussed up in stiff, white bonnets, like middle-aged Little Bo Peeps? Or cry at the angelic faced toddlers, struggling to hold aloft flags that were twice their size, and bore symbols that looked remarkably like swastikas?

Laugh at the tough, shaven-headed young men, who congregated outside the church, their bulldog faces pink and swollen with grief, or cry at their inability to see how ludicrous it was to mourn such a man?

In death, as in life, it was hard to know whether Eugene Terrre’Blanche was more to be mocked or feared.

As head of South Africa’s AfrikanerWeerstandsbeweging (AWB) movement, he became an international symbol of extreme-right opposition to the dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990s - and was made famous elsewhere in the world by Nick Broomfield’s 1991 documentary, The Leader, his Driver and the Driver’s Wife.

But since then, he was no longer so much a symbol of hatred as a figure of ridicule - everywhere, that is, except for the Transvaal community of Ventersdorp, where he was born, and where he died at the hands of two of his employees this month.

As I watched the video footage of his funeral last weekend it occurred to me that I’m hardly in a position to judge the followers of Terre’ Blanche - however wrong their beliefs; however outdated and eccentric their practices and peculiar their dress code; however inexcusable the crimes of their revered leader.

Eugene Terreblanche addresses followers at a rally in South Africa

I am, after all, a member of an organisation that has colluded for decades to shelter and protect criminals. I am a member of an organisation which - despite its lofty aims - repeatedly turned the other way when children were beaten and abused within its walls.

I am a member of an organisation that appears to regard children as - in the words of a recent Newsweek article - ‘collateral damage’, unfortunate civilian sacrifices, necessary to ensure the safety and financial stability of Mother Church.

I am a woman who is a fully paid up member of an organisation that makes no secret of its desire to subordinate women. I am a believer in democracy who is a member of an organisation that considers itself above the laws of any state.

I am a member of an organisation whose highest authority chose to sidestep its own moral code and jeopardise the safety of children, as when the then Cardinal Ratzinger resisted pleas, on the grounds of ‘‘the good of the Universal Church’’, to defrock a California priest who tied up and molested two boys.

A couple of months back, I read the Murphy report and arrived at the inescapable conclusion that the Catholic Church was an organisation I could no longer be part of. I logged onto, with the intention of defecting.

But I didn’t go through with it for a small, but not insignificant, reason - actually two small, but not insignificant, reasons. I have two children, neither of whom is yet of school-going age.

I don’t want them educated in a Catholic-run school, but the rate of over-subscription to secular or multidenominational schools in my area means that I may have no choice.

I’m not proud of my reasons for staying in an organisation that I feel ashamed to belong to. I don’t want to be part of the Church, any more than its dwindling tribes of loyal followers, some of whom may even now be writing to this paper to denounce my hypocrisy, want me to be part of it.

But the state has left me with no option.

Under the Equal Status Act, schools are entitled to refuse to admit children who are not of their own denomination. Since 92 per cent of the schools in the country are Catholic, that’s a pretty significant consideration for any parent - or it should be.

Just so we’re clear, when you sign your children up for education in a Catholic school you’re not merely signing them up to don a nice suit for their Communion and Confirmation.

You’re also signing them up for 30 minutes’ religious education every day. You are signing them up to abide by the rules of the school, as setout by the board of management - which will almost inevitably still answer to the local parish priest. (In the case of one Christian Brothers School in May last year, for example, adhering to these rules meant that government-issued anti-homophobic bullying posters were removed from the premises.)

You are also signing them up to an ethos perhaps best expressed by the Vatican itself in its 1988 document, ‘guidelines for reflection and renewal on The Religious Dimension of Education in A Catholic School’.

The Catholic School, the document states, ‘‘tries to relate all of human culture to the good news of salvation so that the light of faith will illumine everything that the students will gradually come to learn about the world, about life, and about the human person’’.

As a parent or taxpayer, or as both, you might well object to your money being used to fund the indoctrination of children with some of the harder-to-swallow aspects of Catholicism.

You may object to your money - and that of your parents, and their parents before them - having been used to pay the salaries of some of the men and women who abused children behind the walls of these institutions.

You might object, but - as long as the Church continues to operate 92 per cent of primary schools - you don’t really have a choice, either as a taxpayer or as a parent.

The revelations of the Ryan and, more recently, Murphy Reports make the argument for removing the Church’s influence from the country’s schools far more urgent than any debate about ethos or beliefs.

In fact, in October 2007, the Catholic Church indicated it would not be opposed to the dilution of its role in education: it published a policy document that expressed the view that the Church should not be expected to educate the whole community in areas that were experiencing huge inflows of new residents.

It also stated that some existing Catholic schools may need to switch to new models of patronage. Given everything that’s happened since, it may be time we took them up on this offer.


This column first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on Sunday April 18, 2010


  1. Maybe all our newspapers could publish the Education Act that details the rights of children to be educated in a non-religious way in Catholic schools (S. 30 of the Education Act 1998) - it deserves greater publicity.

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