Possible Grooming in SRE Materials – A response to Neil Foster

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On his blog, Law and Religion Australia, Neil Foster claims 2013 Gold Walkley winner Joanne McCarthy in the Newcastle Herald, makes unfair connections between the Queensland Review of Connect Scripture Classes (SRE) learning materials and “possible grooming behavior”. By his own description Foster is “an evangelical Christian”, and as far as I can tell, has never written anything critical about Connect or SRE Scripture classes.

So, let’s see how unfair Joanne McCarthy’s “crusade” has been.

In the 31 January article, Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools, Joanne mentions grooming in connection with the Education Queensland Connect review (my emphasis):

“There are calls for NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes to immediately suspend scripture in schools, and release a long-awaited NSW review of special religious education (SRE), after a Queensland Department of Education review raised serious concerns about Anglican “Connect” scripture content used in both states, including lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour” and advice to scripture teachers about punishing children.”

Now, Foster suggests the McCarthy’s references to “possible grooming behaviour” unfairly links Connect’s materials to child abuse and the Royal Commission.

Joanne McCarthy quotes the Education Queensland Review as identifying “lessons consistent with grooming behaviour”. Compare this reference with the relevant page of the review, which repeatedly mentions “grooming behaviour” (my emphasis):

“5.4.2 Student Protection

Some of the advice and activities in the Connect teacher’s manuals were identified as being inconsistent with preferred student protection practices. Of particular note was an activity to share and keep secrets; mentions having ‘special friends’; and a suggestion that teachers meet one-to-one with students who are interested in finding out more about Christianity.

Encouraging and practising behaviours such as these does not align to current approaches in teaching children protective behaviours. It is worth noting however that more recently published manuals suggest another adult should be present for any one-to-one discussions.

Examples include:

  • “Just as Jesus used everyday events to disguise his secret, ask each pair to discuss and then write a story to disguise their own secret” (Upper Primary, A2, Lesson 2, p. 28).

For a wide range of reasons, including that students of all ages should see teachers and school staff as trusted adults and feel safe to share information, this content is not appropriate. In general, activities should not teach or encourage students to keep secrets, particularly secrets between a child and an adult.

Creating secrets with a child is identified as an example of possible grooming behaviour within the Department’s Student Protection Guideline.

  • Use of the term ‘special friends’ – “Jesus was asking Matthew to be one of his special friends” and “Jesus calls us to become one of his special friends” (Lower Primary A2, Lesson 10, p. 92-3). When considered in a protective behaviours context, the use of the term ‘special friends’ should be avoided where possible and where there is a suitable alternative. Whilst the context in this instance is understood, in terms of student protection, adults creating ‘special friendships’ with children is viewed as an example of possible grooming behaviour.
  • Helpful teaching techniques’ provides advice on ‘Talking one-to-one with a student’, indicating that instructors should talk to students in full view of other students or teachers, even though the conversation is private (Upper Primary, A2, p. 197). Best practice would be for instructors to ensure that all discussions with students (including whole class, group or individual discussions) take place in full view of a school based staff member and other students.”


Unavoidably, the comments in the review bring to mind the systemic abuse and cover up within church organisations and schools. But no more so than the way McCarthy refers to them. In fact, it’s the QLD Education, not McCarthy, which specifically identifies and says it views aspects of the lessons as examples of possible grooming behaviour. The caveat “whilst the context is understood” in no way excuses the fact that this material is unequivocally “not appropriate”, and “inconsistent with preferred student protection practices”.

Foster complains about McCarthy using the phrase in connection to quotes by Greens MP David Shoebridge and Bishop Peter Stuart of Newcastle Anglican Diocese. For clarity, I quote the relevant sections from McCarthy’s articles (incorrectly noted on Foster’s post).

1 Feb, Newcastle Herald:

“Father Rod Bower said Anglican Special Religious Education material produced by a Christian evangelical group and authorised by Sydney Anglican Diocese was “of great concern”, a view backed by Newcastle Anglican Bishop Peter Stuart after a review raised serious concerns, including questions about “possible grooming behaviour” linked to some material taught to children”.

31 January, Newcastle Herald:

“Lessons for children about keeping secrets with adults and having “special friendships” with them were particularly concerning because “We know from the Royal Commission that encouraging ‘special friendships’ and secrets with adults endangers children and plays into the hands of predators”, Mr Shoebridge said.

“Keeping children safe must be the number one priority in our schools, not pandering to extreme religious views.””

I don’t understand why Foster ignores the fact that the connection to child abuse is made explicitly by Greens MP Michael Shoebridge, based on the QLD review, not by Joanne McCarthy.

The pertinent question is not whether McCarthy was out of line for accurately reporting the contents of the Education Queensland review and the reactions to it. The real question is how we’re supposed to view the horror of decades, if not centuries, of systemic child abuse and the deliberate shielding of predators by religious organisations, and then fail to register any concern about inappropriate teaching methods encouraging the keeping of secrets, special friendships, and one-on-one activities between adult and child. Not to do so, seems careless in my view.

Tellingly, the myriad of other concerns raised by Joanne McCarthy receive no rebuttal whatsoever.

For example, Neil Foster doesn’t mention the concerns of NSW Primary Principals Association president Phil Seymour that lesson materials are not checked or endorsed by the department, or his “surprise” that even the Education Minister is unable to exercise any control:

“But Mr Seymour and association treasurer Rob Walker expressed concern about whether parents had enough information to give informed consent to their children attending scripture in NSW public schools, and whether all principals knew scripture material was not approved or vetted by the Department of Education”.

Foster leaves out any discussion the merits of dissecting small animals to simulate animal sacrifice. We also left in the dark about his view of “a lesson requiring children aged 7-9 to list ways to “get rid of” a person, after a Bible story about people “getting rid of” Daniel, and a concluding prayer where children “pray that we may not be like the Israelites””,

Also omitted is Father Rod Bower’s comment that Scripture in NSW public schools is “an echo from a bygone era and now needs to be reconsidered”.

What about the $300,000 ARTD Consultants report in to Scripture and Ethics which remains unreleased more than a year later? Anyone actually interested in the facts would surely be keen to see this report.

15 replies
  1. mppotter
    mppotter says:

    “The pertinent question is not whether McCarthy was out of line for accurately reporting the contents of the Education Queensland review and the reactions to it.” – You’re right, it’s whether she was out of line for inaccurately reporting the contents of the Education Queensland review.

    “Foster leaves out any discussion the merits of dissecting small animals to simulate animal sacrifice.” – There wasn’t any mention of dissecting small animals to simulate animal sacrifice in the Connect materials, so fair enough I think that Foster doesn’t address it. Where’d you get that idea? McCarthy’s article?

    • Hugh Harris
      Hugh Harris says:

      Well you’ll have to take issue with Education Queensland who on Section 5.1 Page 7 of the Education Queensland Review do indeed refers to these matters. (the link is in the above article – please read it). Quote Page 7:

      “There are references to events, concepts and terms discussed in these sections such as rape (Infants, C1, p. 70), murder (Upper Primary, A1, p. 55), and animal and human sacrifice (Lower Primary, C2, p. 62).

      Upper Primary, C1, Lesson 4, p. 46 (Student Worksheet) includes a Bible quote on animal sacrifice: “Finally, Saul commanded, ‘Bring me some animals, so we can offer sacrifices to please the LORD and ask for his help’. Saul killed one of the animals…”

      Events and concepts such as animal sacrifice and ‘wasting money on women’ are not considered developmentally appropriate for the target age group and their continued use in primary schools is not considered appropriate.”

      OK? I’ll await your acknowledgement.

      • mppotter
        mppotter says:

        There’s certainly references to animal sacrifice. There’s also a suggested supplementary lesson relating to animal dissection, ostensibly to illustrate a point about parts of the body working together, which I think everyone can agree is pretty weird and unnecessary and should be rightly removed. There’s NO reference in the Connect material (or the review) to “dissecting small animals to simulate animal sacrifice”.

        • Hugh Harris
          Hugh Harris says:

          Oh right. So you’re objection is that I’m suggesting the purpose of dissecting small animals may be to simulate animal sacrifice, when it might for some other purpose?

          That hardly seems cause for outrage, does it, especially since you admit the lesson should be rightly removed? Can you send me a copy of the lesson in question, and do you know whether it has been removed in NSW?

          I wouldn’t know or couldn’t even guess why you’d have a lesson to do with Christianity were you’d ask children to dissect a dead animal. But then I didn’t understand why kids would be asked to role play the beheading of Goliath, or why 7 year old’s would be given age inappropriate sexualized horror of the Twilight vampire novels (age 14+). The point is that these activities are self-evidently inappropriate.

          My point being, Neil Foster doesn’t engage on the substantial issues Joanne McCarthy raises with Connect, preferring to complain about an inference to “grooming” which was clearly made in the QLD review. And which is eminently justifiable given the horrific, decades long abuse of children by the clergy especially those in schools and orphanages. This point emphasized by yesterdays shocking revelations from the Royal Commission of the prevalence of paedophiles in the clergy and particularly in schools with disadvantaged students.

  2. mppotter
    mppotter says:

    To quote you: “I view the use of evidence and reason in public debate as something worth fighting for. Too often ideological concerns, vested interests, and lobbyists, combine to relegate evidence to the margins.”

    It’s not particularly outrageous when you make a false statement on a personal blog, just sloppy. It’s more than sloppy when a respected journalist like Joanne does it in print, especially if the falsehood is supportive of her own biases.

    This section of the article is in her own words and is false:

    “The Queensland review in August recommended removing an animal sacrifice lesson for children aged 10-12, which suggested scripture teachers “bring in a dead animal to dissect”.”

    There was no animal sacrifice lesson, there was an incidental reference to animal sacrifice in a Biblical narrative. The dissection supplementary section was completely unrelated. There’s no evidence anyone ever used it. I do think it was rightly removed, because it was odd and unnecessary, but not scandalous like mock sacrifices with dead animals would be.

    Dr Darrin Morgan of FIRIS and it’s sister organisation HRAA claimed to have the “support” of Joanne back in 2014, and backed up the claim with several articles that did, indeed, seem to fit that bill (http://rationalist.com.au/special-religious-education-in-nsw-public-schools/). A less generous reader could conclude that this article was written to deliberately skew the findings of a fairly innocuous review – a review that certainly made no recommendation to suspend the Connect program. As it is, I’m happy to apply Hanlon’s Razor and assume it was neglect and misunderstanding that allowed this and other false or misleading statements to creep in to the article, rather than bad intentions.

    • Hugh Harris
      Hugh Harris says:

      No, you’re the one being sloppy. My comment was precisely correct.

      “Foster leaves out any discussion the merits of dissecting small animals to simulate animal sacrifice.”

      Foster does indeed leave out any discussion of this topic. I’m entitled to raise it since, as you admit, Joanne McCarthy raises this issue in her article and Neil Foster’s complaints about her reporting are the subject of my post. If your minor quibble you make is correct, and important, why doesn’t Foster mention it? Do you think parents of NSW children would approve of dissecting dead animals in SRE for other reasons?

      Why don’t you, as I requested, make copies of the Connect materials in question available to me? You could identify yourself, and your relation to the Connect materials or SRE while your at it.

      I can assure you that with the secrecy and deliberate misinformation surrounding SRE, that I’m not just going to take your word for it.

      Other programmes, such as Safe Schools, are freely available on line. The Connect lessons have to be purchased. If you have the evidence I’d be happy to review it and even publish it.

      However, as I’m sure you realise the comment on my blog was accurate.

      • mppotter
        mppotter says:

        Had a genuine chuckle at this one – well it was certainly “precisely” correct in that sense. I’m glad you’ve reached my original conclusion – you made that reference because Joanne McCarthy did. I certainly “admit” that!

        Happy to identify myself, I’m Matthew, I live in South Australia and don’t like false representation of issues in the media. I have zero connections to SRE or the Connect material, personally, professionally or otherwise. For the sake of clarity I have zero connections to any similar scripture programs anywhere – the only time I ever think about SRE is when FIRIS & friends brings it up and it somehow finds it’s way to my Newsfeed. Usually, it’s because they are crowing about it in some unrelated thread on John Dickson’s page (who, again, I have zero affiliation with beyond following him on Facebook). In this case I believe it was Rev. Dan from the Gordon Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that was doing the crowing. I found the article so poor in its journalistic standards that I’ve followed along since.

        I have very little interest in SRE, really – it’s the truth twisting I find interesting and worthy of comment, especially from self proclaimed rationalists and free thinkers who would (rightly) decry similar tactics being employed by their opponents (some of the negative hype around Safe Schools springs to mind).

        (I’m sorry – I can’t provide a link to the material in question because I don’t have one, I did read a screenshot of it in a Facebook thread some days ago, which isn’t much but is apparently more than you or Joanne have done? Anyway, the reviewers who have read it speak for themselves).

        • Hugh Harris
          Hugh Harris says:

          Sure. My blog was correct and did not misrepresent the truth or otherwise of McCarthy’s claims in regards animal sacrifice – I just noted Foster hadn’t addressed it.

          That’s not twisting the truth. And if you’re so interested in the truth, rather than defending SRE why don’t you acknowledge that my post correctly points out the glaring flaw in Neil Foster’s argument.

          Viz. his suggestion that Joanne McCarthy goes beyond the Education QLD report in regards “grooming behaviour” is quite unfair. Why doesn’t he criticize Greens MP Michael Shoebridge?

          ie. why focus on a spurious point of contention over a claim I didn’t even make?

          And, if you can’t provide the material in question then why are you so confident you’re correct and that there’s not evidence of it elsewhere. If you have no evidence I’ll disregard your comments. And, by the way, you must be well aware of the heinous lessons using vampires, drinking cordial to represent sin, threatening children with death, praying to become kingdom kids, and role playing beheadings. Why aren’t the materials freely available on line so parents can see for themselves?

          Anyway, good luck to you and your quest for the truth.

          • mppotter
            mppotter says:

            Absolutely Michael Shoebridge is worthy of criticism in this, in my opinion (though Joanne links to the review right there in her article – she could fact check him).

            I’m confident because there was a detailed and thorough review conducted by a third party, and feel they would have mentioned mock animal sacrifices using dead animals.

            Nope, not familiar with those lessons at all. They certainly sound heinous but you’ll forgive me if I don’t accept everything I read from a critic on face value.

          • Hugh Harris
            Hugh Harris says:


            Well you can accept the articles I and others have written in the mainstream press which include links and photos of the actual materials. And you could check out out the facebook page of Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools, who originally exposed this oft frightening material, who provide screenshots of many lessons (some of which have now been discontinued).


            “An example of a religious instruction lesson plan, in which children learn “how every single person has sinned … and deserves to be punished”. Photo: Supplied”

            There are many others also. I think Shoebridge’s comments are justified. We can’t just ignore the hideous evidence of child abuse, and how shockingly widespread amongst the clergy it is. Neither should we ignore inappropriate lessons, and materials which may put children at risk. Above all, religious lessons aimed at evangelising young children are inappropriate and should be replaced with education dept approved materials which provide general religious education. No need for it to be run by faith groups, other than the insistence of people to try and perpetuate Christianity among the young.

            I am a critic of things which I think are wrong, but I aim to be above all an honest broker, and to present the evidence as best I can. I’ll always be happy to publicly correct any false claim I might have made. I haven’t in this case. Please don’t assume all people opposing the SRE point of view have poor motivations or dishonest intentions – from my dealings with them, I believe the opposite to be the case.

            But I appreciate your comments and input, and encourage you to look at this issue from my point of view with the evidence I’ve presented.

  3. mppotter
    mppotter says:

    An aside, but how did you manage to read and quote this section of the review:

    There are references to events, concepts and terms discussed in these sections such as rape (Infants, C1, p. 70), murder (Upper Primary, A1, p. 55), and animal and human sacrifice (Lower Primary, C2, p. 62).

    Without reading the preceding sentence:

    Each lesson within the Connect teacher’s manuals provides background information under the heading “Bible
    background” to help the instructor contextualise the lesson.

    or the sentence following immediately after:

    While these concepts are not developmentally appropriate to be discussed with primary school students, this section is not for the purposes of discussion with students and is only for the instructor’s background.

    Or did you deliberately misconstrue that quote to suit your agenda? No, no, I’m sure not – you bang on about fighting for evidence and reason in your About page, so just a little sloppy I’m sure. Hanlon’s Razor is getting a workout today.

    • Hugh Harris
      Hugh Harris says:

      I quoted from the Education Queensland review and provided a link to it in my blog post so everyone can read it.

      And in responding to your intentionally misleading comment, from which someone might infer there was no mention of either animal sacrifice or dissecting animals, in the Connect material, the Ed QLD review comments which were appropriate were only those relating to both those items. They are both mentioned, and they are both manifestly inappropriate.

      I’m sorry that I’m not more sympathetic to SRE in state schools, and that I’m not going out of my way to make your argument for you. I detest the indoctrination of young children and the deliberate and pernicious use of age inappropriate and manipulative material, not to mention the deliberate disinformation provided to parents so they continue to enrol their students in it.

      • MPPotter
        MPPotter says:

        Eh? Intentionally misleading? To quote ME this time,on this very page:

        “There’s certainly references to animal sacrifice. There’s also a suggested supplementary lesson related to animal dissection…”

        • Hugh Harris
          Hugh Harris says:

          “– There wasn’t any mention of dissecting small animals to simulate animal sacrifice in the Connect materials, so fair enough I think that Foster doesn’t address it. ”

          That’s what I thought was misleading. Maybe not necessarily intentionally so. I’ll withdraw that complaint. 🙂

          • mppotter
            mppotter says:

            Ah, fair enough. Yes absolutely that could be construed that way, especially in isolation as my first comment. Not my intention. Nice talking to you Hugh, I better get back to my actual job 🙂

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