The “weeping sore” of the National School Chaplaincy Programme

It hasn’t been the best week for the sellers of the National School Chaplaincy Programme Beta version, firmly ensconced in schools following a dishonest campaign by the National School Chaplaincy Association. Look for qualifications or a definitive role and about all one finds is the made up sales jingle by Scripture Union and other NSCA members that they are affectionately called “chappies”.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman Report, embedded below, raises serious concerns about the ill defined role of chaplains, no minimum qualifications and the non existent code of conduct or definition of proselytising. Added to this is the absence of minimum qualifications and a clear avenue for complaints. Even defining the terms “pastoral care” or “chaplain” properly has been recommended. It’s hardly surprising given that Australians were hoodwinked by a self serving 2009 review conducted by the NSCA itself that magically turned a 25% survey response rate into a 97% request for ongoing funding for chaplains. “You can’t argue with facts like that”, boasted NSCA’s Tim Mender in late 2009. Two days ago he was piping the same tune;

Chaplaincy is welcomed in school communities. They are making a wonderful contribution to the welfare of our kids, and schools are saying that in droves.

This is not true. As Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Usher succinctly observed;

There is a degree of uncertainty in the community. There are many organisations who are rather nervous about what’s happening in the schools.

A brief look at Peter Garrett’s response to the Ombudsman’s report gives away his predetermined agenda to maintain the programme. His department “broadly agrees” with the recommendations, which he stresses have already been identified by the government. His release includes;

Whenever I visit a school taking part in the scheme I am always reminded of the high level of support among principals, teachers and students, and have seen first-hand the difference school chaplains can make in student well-being. [….]

The Government is extending the scheme to 2014 and expanding it to 1000 additional schools, and we remain committed to ensuring as many schools and students as possible receive the benefits of what has been a successful and valuable program.

The government’s insouciant neglect of chaplaincy shortfalls, community needs and attitude hasn’t been missed by Dr Monica Thielking and Associate Professor David Mackenzie from Swinburne University. They’ve called for a “comprehensive independent review of student support services”. Noting the “ambiguous” and evangelism prone “pastoral care” aspect showered with praise by Garrett and the NSCA, along with the upcoming High Court challenge, their media release, School chaplains: Where’s the evidence?, includes;

The ‘weeping sore’ of the chaplaincy program would be better treated by comprehensive independent research on student support services in Australian schools. The focus of the research should be the degree to which student support services are meeting the mental health, welfare and educational needs of students. While various jurisdictions are seriously interested in improving student support, there is no national approach and there has not been a review of all of the models and programs currently operating, let alone a process of reforming our student welfare services provision for the 21st Century.

“The focus on the chaplaincy program is a divisive distraction from what really needs to be done. Whether there should be a chaplaincy program or not should be ultimately considered as part of a thoroughly conducted program of research and development on how best to support young Australians through school and into life.

The so-called “federal inquiry” clearing ACCESS Ministry of their stated mission to convert children by “planting the gospel in schools… to go and make disciples” who “without Jesus… are lost”, was a whitewash. Two days before she got the all clear, Evonne Paddison’s ominous challenge to “bring on the inquiry”, because “the one we serve is the same yesterday, today… forever and his purposes will not be thwarted!”, tells us much of where Peter Garrett’s intentions lie. It is thus right and proper to have serious concerns about the future of the school chaplaincy programme under Garrett’s auspices.

The 2010 Ombudsman investigation in the Northern Territory of a school chaplain living with a convicted paedophile – raising parental concern of trust by association – other chaplains accessing children alone at home, counselling without qualifications, having no limitations placed on “religious propagation”, poor record keeping and more is a reminder of how wrong misplaced confidence can be. Since May 22nd this year, nothing more has been heard about allegations of rape and sexual misconduct directed at a chaplain or in what context these allegations from The Secular Lobby were framed.

However, the other issue they raised with Peter Garrett was that DEEWR and Scripture Union were co-developing an evangelical bible based resource – The Daniel Quest – for use by NSCP funded chaplains. S.U. QLD had made much of this project, which was most unusual given ACCESS Ministries were supposedly being investigated by Garrett and DEEWR for evangelising. Following a complaint from a parent, both the Scripture Union QLD’s Daniel Quest and a Bundaberg school web page hosting the project vanished. Readers familiar with ACCESS Ministry will recognise this tactic.

The ACCESS federal inquiry whitewash, Northern Territory’s five fold funnies, departmental neglect, invented statistics and inflated support, DEEWR double standards and the vanishing evidence of a bible project all point to an independent inquiry into the NSCP “weeping sore” as being justified. Recent online sex talk from a female chaplain to a student’s friend, distribution of homophobic material to students, active suppression of community awareness of inappropriate and bigoted conduct, fundamentalist, creationist and anti-science agendas – all enveloped in self serving, deceptive extremism are corrosive dynamics indeed.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman reported this week on page 5, that chaplaincy guidelines state the role of a chaplain is as a;

Reference point for students, staff and other members of the school community on religious, spiritual issues, values, human relationships and wellbeing issues. This includes providing support for grief, family breakdown and other crisis situations.

This, as with the NT Ombudsman’s Report raises concern about chaplains being placed in situations where they are forced to act as counsellors. Tim Mender fails to realise many community members and parents want neither pastoral care nor chaplains acting as counsellors. His reassurance to ABC that chaplains are well trained and “equipped to know the difference”, always working with professionals in the school environment is a fallacy. As former chaplain Beau Walker claims;

I would be asked from the school to maybe go and speak to a child who had a relative pass away. The guidelines say no counselling, but what else can you do in that situation?

Written up large on the Scripture Union QLD “chappy” page is Renee’s story of helping a “student whose mum died”;

I was able to take her through a program that deals with the effects and process of grief and loss… and talk with her throughout the whole process. [….] We are on a journey and each step is getting a little less painful for her. I am so proud of her and the amazing strength she shows each day. As chaplain, I am available to students and not tied down with other jobs. I think it’s amazing that supporting students is my role! They are the reason that I’m here. They aren’t keeping me from my job – they are my job!

What is also of concern is the “out there” evangelistic beliefs and Biblical fundamentalist views summed up perfectly by Christine Burford, interlocutor with God and chaplain from ACCESS Ministries, who is proud of her “covert mission”. In the Ombudsman’s report we read of the anxiety any parent would feel in knowing they have no say as to the “unfettered” access chaplains have to children. There are no departmental guidelines as to how parents are informed of chaplaincy access to children or how they may reciprocate. There are no requirements for the department to inform parents of their right to complain to the department itself. If parents act to restrict their children’s exposure to chaplains, given the ubiquitous nature of the programme it is likely to lead to divisiveness. On page 13 of the report one reads that a Mr. Y contacted the ombudsman’s office to say;

… three days after his five-year-old daughter started school she came home and told him, ‘Today I played hide ‘n’ seek with Mr Chappy!’ This caused him some concern as he understands that the chaplain does not hold any qualifications in education, early childhood learning, counselling or psychology. Mr Y advised that he then became aware that the chaplain is a missionary of a local Christian church and that this church has an agreement with the school to use its facilities on weekends to, among other activities, conduct miracle healing sessions. Mr Y advised that this church is also part of a religious movement which believes childhood behavioural disorders are caused by demonic possession. [….]

Mr Y believes that the implementation of the Chaplaincy Program at his local primary school is starting to foster principles of exclusion and discrimination, and he also believes that chaplaincy is becoming a divisive issue within an otherwise harmonious school community.

On page 8 it’s reported that despite the application guidelines that Peter Garrett holds dear and cites as virtually impenetrable, it appears they can be easily set aside. Ms. X reports that at a school with a high number of non English speaking non Christian families a survey that painted the chaplaincy programme in a strongly favourable light was sent home with students. Many parents weren’t aware of this and there was no language translation. On balance the responses did not support the chaplaincy programme. It was implemented anyway because the school felt it was not bound by the survey results thus Garrett’s department deemed the application a success. Ms. X also believes the decision was based on the belief the chaplain would act as a school counsellor.

It’s clear that despite Garrett’s preaching about the “guidelines” over and again, they are quite poor and in need of strong review. Proper complaint handling must be implemented with parents well aware of their rights. The Commonwealth Ombudsman made suggestions to deal with the flaws of this NSCP Beta version. Improved community consultation is required before implementing a chaplaincy programme. All key participants must be accountable under the funding agreement.

Mechanisms for assessing compliance with guidelines and national monitoring are needed. Protection of children and the rights of parents must be central to administration of the programme. Best practice as to how parents voice consent should be pursued. Strict definitions of what is and is not proselytising need to be provided by the department. The Ombudsman made 8 recommendations which can be read over pages 19 – 22.

Many members of the NSCA are also members of the international group, Arrow Leadership, compelled by the ”Lausanne Covenant”. This evangelical manifesto seeks nothing less that to make ”disciples of every nation”. Notice the spelling already used by the NSCA in Australia. “Program”. ACCESS’ co-architects, Evonne Paddison and Bishop Stephen Hale are on the board. They are not playing around folks.

If anything we can take away one general conclusion. The National School Chaplaincy Programme was not, is not and will not be implicated for the benefit of schools, children or families. It exists to maintain the influence of Christianity in a secular education system. To ensure the privilege of evangelism, to dilute the influence and cultures of a multi-faith community and to combat free thought, the pursuit of reason and skeptical enquiry.

No Australian should be expected to accept that.

7:30 Report, July 27th

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About @advodiaboli
I'm not really a cast iron flying pig.

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