Special Religious Education in NSW and “grooming”

Over the course of three days the local Herald newspaper here in Newcastle (NSW) has been publishing a series of misleading and inflammatory articles designed to put pressure on the NSW Government to stop offering the Special Religious Education program (SRE, or sometimes popularly called “Scripture”) in public schools. Here I want to address a particularly inflammatory accusation implied or made in these articles, that SRE material somehow supports “grooming” of children for sexual purposes. These accusations are completely false and should not have been made in the first place.

First, some brief background on the law governing SRE in NSW. In a previous post dealing with an earlier, ultimately unsuccessful, challenge to SRE material, I summed it up as follows:

For some years the law of NSW has required that a small amount of time be set aside each week in public schools for SRE. It is a voluntary system, in that parents are free to remove their children from the classes if they so choose. It is not meant to be general information about the concept of religion and “world religions”- that is “General Religious Education”, to be provided by the ordinary class-room teacher. (Under s 30 of the Education Act 1990 that is classified as part of the “secular education” which is to be provided by the schools.) But s 32 of the Act allows representatives of various religions to come into the schools and provide religious instruction from their own faith perspective, to children whose parents are willing to allow this.

“32 Special religious education

(1) In every government school, time is to be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion, but the total number of hours so allowed in a year is not to exceed, for each child, the number of school weeks in the year.

(2) The religious education to be given to children of any religious persuasion is to be given by a member of the clergy or other religious teacher of that persuasion authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs.

(3) The religious education to be given is in every case to be the religious education authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs.”

Each of the recent articles refers to comments from a group called FIRIS, described once as a “parents’ group”, but elsewhere more accurately as “a group challenging the application of scripture guidelines across three states”. This is not a random collection of local concerned parents; it is an organised lobby group, the aim of which is to see the removal of SRE and similar programs from State schools. In their latest operation they have managed to enlist the support of a highly respected Newcastle journalist, Joanne McCarthy. Ms McCarthy has in the past done a great service to the local Newcastle community, and to Australia generally, by her courageous campaign to expose clergy child sexual abuse, especially in the Roman Catholic church. Her work has been acknowledged by a number of journalism awards, including the prestigious 2013 Gold Walkley award. But it has to be said that this current “crusade” is a very different matter.

The “shocking” claims made by the articles about the context of SRE materials produced by the Sydney based Youthworks organisation, and published by Christian Education Publications, CEP, are mostly either trivial or easily rebutted. Youthworks has issued a press release doing so: see “CEP response to misleading SRE claims” (1 Feb 2017). (See also an excellent response to the issues by Murray Campbell, “Post-truth hits NSW“, 2 Feb 2017).

But one element of these articles is so dangerously powerful as an allegation, especially when brought by a journalist of Ms McCarthy’s reputation, that it must be addressed in more detail. This is the use of the word “grooming” in connection with the SRE materials. The word appears in the following contexts:

  • referring to the Connect content as ‘including lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour”‘ (Herald, Jan 31, 2017, p 1.)
  • Bishop Peter Stuart of Newcastle Anglican Diocese was said to ‘back’ the view that the material was “of great concern”, ‘after a review raised serious concerns, including questions about “possible grooming behaviour” linked to some material taught to children” (Herald, Feb 1, 2017.)
  • The phrase was repeated in the same article, when citing the views of Greens MP David Shoebridge, who ‘strongly criticised lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour” after more than three years of evidence from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse’ (Herald, Feb 1, 2017).

Definition of “Grooming”

The word “grooming” of course, in this context, carries the most serious of overtones of possible pedophile activity. Among the definitions of the verb “to groom” in the Macquarie Dictionary is included the following:

to establish a trusting relationship with (a child), as a preliminary to obtaining their compliance in sexual activities

So an allegation that material is related to “grooming” is a serious allegation of preparation for pedophilia. Is this allegation at all supported by the available evidence? No, it is not!

Do the SRE materials amount to “grooming”?

First, consider the context in which SRE lessons take place. They are not conducted at church premises or behind closed doors. A normal SRE class is conducted by a community volunteer (these days, not usually a member of the clergy, though of course some are), on school premises, in broad daylight, usually in the presence of the normal class teacher, for about 30 minutes once a week. It is frankly ludicrous to suggest that sexual misconduct could take place in these circumstances, or indeed that a teacher could establish an inappropriate connection with one child out of the 20-30 or more in the class.

Second, then, where does this suggestion using the repeated phrase “possible grooming behaviour” come from? This is very clear. A Review of the “Connect” Religious Instruction Materials was conducted by the Queensland Education Department, and released in August 2016. The overall finding of that careful and exhaustive review was as follows:

“The review of the Connect materials did not find major inconsistencies with departmental legislation, policies, procedures or frameworks. It is envisaged many of the issues identified could be addressed through negotiation with the publisher and advice for instructors about departmental requirements” (at p 16.)

What of the “grooming” issue, then? At pages 10-11 of the Report, two passages from the material were mentioned.

  • “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).

Here, in a lesson dealing with the well-known fact that Jesus did not reveal his identity as Messiah to all those around him immediately, and hence kept it a “secret”, a somewhat laboured class exercise involves the children discussing how they might keep a “secret” that they have. Children from all ages and times have had perfectly innocent “secrets”, such as where they keep their chocolate collections. The exercise has absolutely no sexual overtones, and does not even involve the “secret” being shared with the teacher.

  • 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).

Here the explanation offered by the publishers, CEP, makes perfect sense:

The use of the term “Special friends” was used in the context of describing someone who is a follower of Jesus – “Jesus was asking Matthew to be one of his special friends” and “Jesus calls us to become one of his special friends”. Education Queensland acknowledged that while they understood the context – a child-friendly translation for Jesus’ disciples – the term was unsuitable in context of child protection, and asked CEP to use an alternative (p. 11 of the Education Queensland Review). There is no suggestion in the material that students should have special friendships with adults. The term has taken on a particularly insidious connotation since the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse and will be removed from future SRE material. (from the CEP Facebook page.)

In fact in neither of these cases were there any sexual overtones, and neither passage at all justified even the highly qualified description used in the Queensland Report of “possible grooming behaviour”. But here are the two comments included in the Report on the topic:

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….

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.

In effect the Report simply notes that the terms “secret” and “special friend” may suggest inappropriate behaviour. But the first comment ignores the fact that the notes do not encourage “secrets” between adult and child;  they suggest children discuss secret-keeping (not even the content of secrets) which each other! And the second explicitly says “the context in this instance is understood”- that is, as CEP explains, the term “special friend” was simply used as a way translating the more difficult word “disciple” for younger children. In neither case was there any serious suggestion of actual “grooming”- hence the word “possible”, and the reference to “examples”. But when people are reading quickly, “buzzwords” like “grooming” catch attention despite the qualified context.

It should be stressed, these unconvincing examples are the only pieces of evidence noted by the Queensland Report to justify the use of the word “grooming”. No independent evidence is offered in the recent Herald articles, which seem to rely heavily on the Queensland Report.

No evidence at all of possible “grooming”

In short, there is no evidence at all that any “grooming” of children for sexual activity takes place at all in SRE classes. It is a great shame that the respected journalist Ms McCarthy, whose work in exposing genuine child sexual abuse was so important, has chosen to associate herself with these spurious allegations, which are so completely unfounded. By implication many readers will trust her views on these matters. Simply referring to the Royal Commission in the same article as SRE will create doubts in the minds of many. But those doubts are not supported by any evidence.

SRE classes are not conducted by dark-robed clergy in cupboards at church buildings after hours. They are run, where parents choose to send their children along, by a large group of mostly volunteer parents and grandparents and dedicated Uni students who want to serve the community by helping children understand the religion that has shaped their lives. All teachers have “working with children” checks conducted before teaching. Classes are conducted usually for half an hour at time, in open classrooms, under the watchful eyes of local teachers. All SRE teachers and providers are more than happy to discuss the content of lessons with parents. Where inappropriate words or lessons are used, the publishers of material have been happy to take on board concerns and revise it to make it clearer.

If you are a parent in NSW, ask your kids what they are learning in SRE! You might find out some things you don’t know about the religious traditions they are learning about. But sadly, don’t believe everything you read in the papers.

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