Bishops in a class of their own

This week a Bishop is making the headlines again. In the following article from 2004, Mary looks at the power of Bishops in society. Mary notes that profound questions must to be asked by Irish society as to whether Catholic Church personnel are fit people to be allowed such power over our schools and our children.

Bishops in a class on their own

14th October , 2004

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, Education at a Glance 2004, published last September, turned up some enthralling figures, writes Mary Raftery.

It compared the amount of school time spent on different subjects across its 28 member-countries (the developed world). Ireland was roughly average for core subjects (the 3 Rs), but diverged sharply in two significant areas – religion and physical education.

At both primary and secondary levels, we devote more time than anywhere else in the developed world to religious education (two and a half times the average). We devote the lowest amount of time (below half the average) to physical education. In the context of all the hand-wringing about obesity in children, this latter figure stands as a resounding condemnation of the duty of the State to protect the health of its young citizens.

It could be argued that if the time spent in Irish schools on religious education moved more towards the OECD norm, this would free up time for physical education without in any way interfering with the 3 Rs. Children would certainly be healthier, probably happier, but perhaps not holier. But then, who exactly is deciding that children should be holy rather than healthy? On a fundamental level, the emphasis on soul rather than body within our education system is highly significant. It points in a graphic manner to the stark reality that education in Ireland has long been and remains under the control of religious interests.

As the Catholic bishops flex their muscles over the adherence of schools to holy days of obligation, it is worth examining in precise terms what exactly this control means. The Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, helpfully gave us a clue last week when he reminded the 92.5 per cent (almost 3,000) of primary schools in the country under Catholic patronage that all teacher appointments must be given prior approval by the local bishop.

The Department of Education, although it pays the bills, has no such rights. While the Minister must sanction all appointments, this is done afterwards, and sanction can only be withheld if proper procedures were shown not to have been followed.

The bishops’ veto over the appointment of the vast majority of primary teachers is absolute, with no obligation even to give reasons. Further, the local bishop patron directly appoints the three-member committee which each primary school must have in order to interview and recommend candidates for jobs as teachers and principals. Further, if such a principal is to be a nun, brother or priest of a religious-order-run school, not even an interview is required.

On a day-to-day basis, the bishops also have almost complete control over the appointment of each member of the school’s board of management, a matter in which again the Department of Education has little say. Rather than being a somewhat benign presence in the background, the Catholic Church is down and dirty in the trenches of everyday control of education.

An example of the trench fighting occurred only last summer. As with countless primary schools, the chair of the board of management of St Anthony’s in Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, is a local priest. He, together with the bishop’s two nominees, conducted interviews for a new principal in 2001. Ms Margaret McGinn applied for the job. Although she was eminently qualified, the priest did not consider her suitable because she was a woman. She took a case to the Equality Tribunal and last August won the largest award in that body’s history, a whopping €127,000. Rather than acknowledging its fault, the school is appealing the judgment. The priest had described Ms McGinn’s complaint as “spiteful” and the tribunal stated that her employer (the school) had told “damaging untruths” about her, and had shown disrespect for its investigation procedure.

Ms McGinn has said that she is far from unique in suffering this kind of discrimination. The INTO has tellingly pointed to a gross gender imbalance among primary school principals – over half of them are male, while men make up less than one-fifth of the overall teaching body. The Equality Tribunal for its part has called for a review of the appointment of interview boards for teaching posts.

Such a review would of course mean a direct confrontation with the all-powerful bishops who hire and fire. Some inkling of their potential reaction to this can be seen from their treatment of the group of expert lay people they appointed to advise them on drawing up new child protection guidelines.

This group collapsed during the summer when opposition to its recommendation that lay experts rather than bishops should decide whether to pass on information on clerical child abuse to the authorities became clear.

With our current knowledge that much child abuse occurred in the past as a direct result of the access which abusing priests had to schools, profound questions need now to be asked by Irish society as to whether Catholic Church personnel are fit people to be allowed such power over our schools and our children.

This column has been republished by the MRJF with the kind permission of The Irish Times.