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Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has been warned by a leading Catholic bishop that it would be “incredibly unwise” to ram through recommendations by the Forum on Patronage and Pluralism aimed at diluting the ethos of denominational schools.
Bishop Leo O’Reilly of Kilmore, the previous chair of the Bishops' commission on Education, speaking in an interview with the Anglo-Celt, a local paper, also criticised proposals made by the Minister's Forum on Patronage and Pluralism, and asked whether ‘diversity’ and ‘choice’ was being offered for all, except those practising as Catholics.
Bishop O'Reilly said: "Is it diversity and choice for all except for those practicing as Catholics?"
His comments come after a statement last month by the Catholic bishops expressing “serious concern among those involved in denominational schools” in regard to some of the proposals made by Advisory Group to the Forum.
The Forum's Report made a number of proposals which were heavily criticised, with leading Catholic educationalists saying they posed a serious threat to denominational schools.
Among the recommendations of is the abolition of Rule 68 for National Schools, which recognises religious instruction as a fundamental part of the school day and permits a religious spirit to "inform and vivify the whole work of the school".
It also proposed that religion should be taught as a discrete subject apart from the rest of the curriculum, that hymns and prayers in Catholic schools should be ‘inclusive’ of the religious beliefs of all children and that Catholic schools would display the emblems of other religions and celebrate their feasts.
Bishop O'Reilly said that the stance of the Forum was one “that essentially suggests freedom of religion is freedom from religion — that’s a crucial distinction and worrying in itself.
"They apparently want no prayers in schools, and that anyone without faith, to not be impinged upon, in any way, by any religious content, as if it were some kind of an infection that could be damaging to their health.
"The assumption seems to be that denominational teaching of religion which includes 'formation' is a form of indoctrination. That it makes people prejudiced, that it's exclusivist and liable to make people intolerant.
"Whereas, if the Christian faith is taught as Christ meant it, it shows tolerance, it is inclusive; I mean the primary commandment is love, that's not a danger to anybody."
He said that he believed that the Department of Education had a long way to go before schools were ultimately divested.
To go ahead with the process as things stood "would be to pose significant problems," he said.
He said: "To proceed with it in its current format they would have to proceed with new legislation, perhaps even change the Constitution to allow it."
Bishop O’Reilly said he hoped Mr Quinn did not get blindsided into implementation of the proposals.
"If he does, there could be trouble," he warned, adding "to try and bulldoze or ram it through would be incredibly unwise".
Mr Quinn said there would be public consultations from September to November to inform the White Paper on some of the issues raised by the forum.
The survey of parents of primary pupils and pre-school children will take place in each of the 44 designated areas in the autumn. They will be asked which type of school patron they would prefer, and if they want their child taught in an English or all-Irish school, in a mostly online survey where they must provide their PPS number for verification.
Potential patrons for the 50 schools to be handed over by Catholic bishops have been asked to make their interest known to the Department of Education.
Mr Quinn last month announced a scheme to allow for the divesting of patronage of Catholic schools in areas where there is little or no other choice of primary education and where it is unlikely that population growth will result in new schools being opened.
The department has now asked for expressions of interest from bodies that might wish to become school patrons in the 44 areas identified last month.
The 44 areas selected by the Department of Education for inclusion in the first divesting exercises include 12 in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin, four in Waterford & Lismore (Carrick -on-Suir, Clonmel, Dungarvan, and Tramore), and three each in Cork and Ross (Bandon, Carrigaline, and Passage West) and Cloyne (Cobh, Fermoy, and Youghal). In some places, two schools might need to be handed over, as more than a dozen areas have five or more schools but none are multidenominational or non-denominational.