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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.

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Can Australian Catholicism Save Itself From Its Ultra-Conservative Forces?

New Matilda 22 February 2016 – Can Australian Catholicism Save Itself From Its Ultra-Conservative Forces? (images courtesy New Matilda)

(IMAGE: paul bica, Flickr).

The leaked allegations of child abuse against Cardinal George Pell aren’t surprising, nor should they particularly diminish anyone’s opinion of him. Simply, there’s no room below rock-bottom. No need then for a new Tim Minchin song, or any reappraisal at all. Whether they have basis in fact remains to be seen.

The only certainty is that, regardless of the conclusion of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, or the outcome of police investigations, Pell will never face a punishment commensurate with his failures.

This is just the latest in a series of recent public relations disasters for the Catholic Church. The aftershocks will reverberate for some time. But amidst these ructions, Australian Catholicism might find a ray of hope in casting out some of its more vocal and acidulous conservative colleagues. A more progressive and non-partisan church leadership would be a good thing – and dare I say, one more in line with the Christian values espoused by Jesus.

Pell cited health grounds to avoid appearing in person for the hearings of the Royal Commission. Given the year-long investigation into multiple allegations of abuse against him by the Victoria Police SANO taskforce, many will conclude he had other reasons for refusing to come. Pell cannot be compelled to answer questions whilst he remains in Rome.

It’s not the first time allegations of sexual abuse have been levelled at Pell. In 2002, a church-inquiry found insufficient evidence to uphold the charge Pell molested a boy on a Phillip Island holiday camp in the early 1960’s. In contrast to Pell’s claim that he was “exonerated”, the Southwell inquiry concluded the testimony of both Pell and his accuser were credible, but there was insufficient cause to establish the allegation.

Having affixed his wagon to conservative forces, Pell’s own troubles exacerbate the steady worsening of community sentiment towards conservative Christianity. Read more here.

(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Jody Claborn, Flickr)