Push to overhaul priests’ powers in Catholic schools

Tirana Jacks & Henrietta Cook

Has the bell tolled for priests who run Catholic schools?

A push to overhaul Catholic schools is gaming momentum, with principals and pastors saying priests do not have the training, time or expertise to manage schools.

The Victorian Association of Catholic Primary Schools recently asked Australian Catholic Uni­versity academics to review the governance of Catholic schools.

“We believe it is becoming more common that the parish priest is just feeling overwhelmed by the responsibilities,” Professor Chris Branson, who is leading the review, said.

Professor Branson said that, as Catholic school enrolments grew, the number of priests declined and parishes merged.

“There are some schools where the parish priest has said this is beyond them [sic: him],” he said.

Father Kevin Dillon, from St Mary of the Angels Parish in Geelong, said running schools had become increasingly complex, par­ticularly when it carne to compli­ance and accountability.

“I have four primary schools in my parish and I am not sure that priests are equipped with the time and expertise to undertake the ultimate responsibility for schools,” he said.

“We are not educationalists.”

Unlike other states, priests in Victoria have a significant man­agement role in Catholic schools. They have to employ principals, oversee financial processes, staff wellbeing, and occupational health and safety protocols.

They can be held legally liable if they fail to carry out these duties, but they do not receive any formal mandatory training for their role as an employer in schools. It is expected the federal royal commis­sion will recommend changes to the role of priests in schools.

Tensions have also erupted between parish priests and par­ents, most recently with the case of Mentone-Parkdale parish’s Father John Walshe. The priest resigned nearly two weeks ago after parents at affiliated Catholic schools led a fierce campaign against him due to a finding by the church that Father Walshe abused an 18-year-old seminarian in 1982.

Father Walshe denies commit­ting abuse. Under the Melbourne Response, a finding of sexual abuse is not equivalent to a sexual abuse conviction and can include sexual abuse of an adult and sex between consenting adults that violates a priest’s vow of celibacy.)

Independent Education Union general secretary Deb James said she received complaints about priests intervening in staff selec­tion decisions, demanding to be on interview panels, and making calls about promotions.

She was aware of one case where a priest insisted on “total financial control” of a school that was engaging in “misuse of fixed-term contracts”, and prohibited the principal from making employment decisions.

Principals Association of Vic­torian Catholic Secondary Schools president, Mark Sheehan, said par­ish priests did not have the “interest, expertise or the time” to run schools.

St Joseph’s College Geelong prin­cipal Paul Tobias told colleagues at a Principals Association of Victor­ian Catholic Secondary Schools event that it was becoming increas­ingly difficult to educate young peo­ple in religious education.

“Most parish priests are good pastors and managers of their schools,” he told Fairfax Media. “But we need to adopt a more mod­ern structure. Priests should be the pastor but not the manager.”

Catholic Education Commission of Victoria executive director Stephen Elder remained tight-lipped on the issue. “We have a rigorous accountability framework to both the Commonwealth and state governments,” he said.

From: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/has-the-bell-tolled-for-priests-who-ru...