School chaplain sign

Irish Government accused of opacity, discrimination over public millions for chaplains in State secondary schools

The Irish Government is being accused of opacity and discrimination for spending €10 million a year in public funding for religious chaplains in State secondary schools.

Driving the news

The Department of Education confirmed to the Irish Times that 156 full-time chaplains – mostly Catholic, but Church of Ireland too – are presently posted to Education and Training Boards (ETB) secondary schools and colleges, at a total cost to the taxpayer of €9.8 million yearly.

A Department spokesman defended the arrangement, saying the chaplains support student well-being by taking on pastoral and counselling responsibilities.

Go deeper

The organisation Atheist Ireland, however, took issue with the posting of chaplains to ETB institutions, recalling that these colleges are designed to be alternatives to denominational schools.

“The Department of Education has told them to consult parents about whether they want religious instruction in accordance with these [Catholic or Church of Ireland] or other denominations, and the ETB schools are refusing to even consult with parents about this”, denounced Jane Donnelly, Atheist Ireland human rights officer.

“If the schools do not know whether parents even want religious instruction and worship in accordance with the rites of these denominations, how can they justify paying chaplains to help these parents with the religious education of their children?”, Donnelly asked.

Why it matters

The revelations about chaplains in ETB schools follows on from recent controversies over State funding of chaplains in universities and other tertiary education institutions, which the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee is currently investigating.

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Atheist Ireland has asked the Higher Education Authority to confirm whether the chaplaincy posts in ETB schools are being advertised, or whether like the tertiary chaplaincy positions they are being awarded to Churches in no-tender contracts.

The secularist organisation has also requested the Dáil extend its inquiry into chaplains in ETB schools.

For the record

The contention over public school and university chaplains reflects the ever-more present difficulty of unravelling legally-binding agreements between Ireland and the Holy See dating back to the 1970s.

Those agreements require, among other things, that about a quarter of the 270 ETB schools maintain a Catholic ethos and impart religious instruction to their students.

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But the arrangement could be under threat as the Education and Training Boards Ireland body finalises a “core values and characteristic spirit review” report.

That’s with the aim of clearing up the confusion over whether ETB schools “are de jure multidenominational but de facto Catholic”, standardising “schools-specific values and traditions”, and making sure the schools are really representative and inclusive of all sectors of Irish society.

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