To the inaction of the authorities, Irish universities are funnelling millions of euros in public money to Churches in no-tender chaplaincy contracts, Freedom of Information requests have revealed.

Driving the news

John Hamill of The Free Thought Prophet Podcast discovered that 21 out of the 24 Irish institutions of higher education are now spending a total of 1.5 million euros a year on chaplains.

Some of that amount comes from student fees, non-exchequer monies and religious funding, but the majority is drawn from grants administered by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Go deeper

Public sector procurement rules require open tender competition to ensure value for money in the expenditure of public funds, and the appointment of chaplains should be no exception to those rules.

But Hamill found out that in at least two cases, Irish third-level education institutions disregarded the rules and gave their chaplaincy contracts, and the public money associated with them, directly to local Churches.

The Institute of Technology, Tralee even admitted directly to the HEA in a 2018 survey that it operates its chaplaincy service “through a memorandum of understanding with the Bishop of Kerry”.

The Letterkenny Institute of Technology admitted to the HEA in the same survey that it included only the three main denominations in the area (Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland and Presbyterian) in its chaplaincy offering.

Why it matters

The Free Thought Prophet Podcast said the HEA’s inaction in the face of the chaplaincy rorts was especially troubling.

Hamill had written to the HEA to check on the implementation of HEA’s own 2016 rules.

Those rules require, among other things, chaplaincy support for “students of all faiths”, the increased employment of lay chaplains and the following of public sector guidelines at all stages in the chaplain appointment process.

But Hamill found that although the HEA attempted to claim at first, in August, that all third-level institutions were “fully compliant with public sector guidelines” with their chaplains and had increased the number of lay and non-Christian chaplains they were employing after a 2015 review, that information turned out to be false, by the HEA’s own 2018 survey conclusions.

Hamill finally obtained from the HEA an admission in November that “the number of lay appointments has remained static over this period [2015-2018] rather than increased as initially indicated”.

The HEA also admitted “a small increase in the overall spend on chaplaincy services within the higher education sector between the period 2015-2018”, but attempted to pin this increase on non-public funding, such as student contributions.

For the record

Reflecting on his investigation, Hamill told The Journal that the tertiary education chaplaincy spend shows is the currrent set-up is “not practical”.

He urged the Irish State to stop funding religious services in higher education institutions in the country, by means of an “establishment clause” in the Constitution modelled after that of the United States.

“Here in Ireland, our constitution allows public bodies to fund religious chaplaincy services, but Article 44.2.3 insists that those services must provide full equality for all beliefs”, Hamill said.

“In a country with more than 100 denominations, which is becoming even more diverse every year, this is simply not practical.

“It would be much preferable if an Irish establishment clause required the State to step away from religious considerations, such that adult students and their churches can make their own arrangements”, Hamill concluded. 

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