While Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd battle it out over just who’s got God on their side, temporal matters are threatening the Government’s $90 million school chaplain scheme.

As Malcolm Farr explains in The Telegraph today, similar schemes operate in South Australia and Queensland. But Farr puts John Howard’s proposal into broader perspective:

The school chaplains scheme is shaping up to be a $90 million addition to taxpayer funding of private schools. It is also paving the way for extraordinary government intervention into the appointment of religious representatives…

These institutions are well-placed to take up the offer of a $20,000 subsidy for an in-house spiritual adviser and guide…

There is no mix of faiths or sects to complicate matters. One chaplain fits all.

That can’t be said for state schools which educate most of our youngsters, and for which $20,000 would go nicely towards such earthly desires as literacy, sports or air conditioning.

At these schools, particularly in cities, there often is a mix of religions, just as there is a variety of racial backgrounds among staff and pupils.

And that’s where the trouble could begin – particularly in today’s litigation-hungry society. A school chaplain who provides “counselling” could be a writ waiting to happen. How will “counselling” be defined? Will these chaplains have the appropriate training in psychology for dealing with mental anguish of the young?

Then there’s the interest of state control of religion – an unprecedented intervention on freedom of worship.

The Prime Minister has pledge $90 million to be spent on funding school chaplains to provide students with “pastoral care and spiritual guidance” – with the proviso that the government reserved the right “to say no to somebody who is plainly unacceptable”.

But who is “somebody who is plainly unacceptable”. To whom? For what? On what grounds?

Democrat Senator Andrew Murray has done much on the plight of children who suffered from ill-administered child welfare schemes and institutions.

He says “somebody who is plainly unacceptable” means the Government will now have to have criteria for selection, and a full checking system to satisfy themselves that someone is not “plainly unacceptable”. He asks:

Does it also mean a review/monitoring system to keep an eye on these people post-appointment? Has John Howard now opened the government (or more accurately, future governments) to liability if they fail to check properly, because of his guarantee?

This guarantee that they will protect children from anyone who is “plainly unacceptable” is very open-ended from someone who wouldn’t say sorry to the indigenous community because of what it was supposed to mean in terms of liability.

And just for a reality check, apart from cults or fundamentalists who might be a worry as a whole group, it is well documented that a minority of every religion has had its share of those one might label “unacceptable”.

Members of the stolen generation and others in institutions and schools have been suing for harm caused by religious minders. Millions of dollars and thousands of the aggrieved are involved. Is John Howard giving a warranty or guarantee that the Feds will pay compo to any student or family for any “chaplain” who they let in who turns out hasn’t been properly background checked or monitored?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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