MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Church teaches Education Minister Richard Bruton a lesson on divestment

Richard Bruton plans to divest patronage from Catholic primary schools. We’ve been here before and the Church still holds all the cards, writes Michael Clifford.

Nobody does it better. Nobody manages to manipulate events and people in order to retain power, and particularly money, better than the Catholic Church.

And sure, why wouldn’t they? Nobody has been around as long, survived and prospered through empires and wars, held sway over the lives of millions, for good and ill. Through it al,l the institution has retained the ability to get what it wants on its own terms.

The announcement this week by Education Minister Richard Bruton about plans to divest — the new term is apparently “reconfigure” — patronage from Catholic primary schools speaks volumes.

Bruton comes across as genuine in his attempts to mould a primary school system befitting the society it serves. Currently, around 94% of the country’s 2,800 schools are under the patronage of the Catholic Church. This system sprang from the 19th century, long before the rise of Parnell, 1916, and the electrification of rural Ireland.

Yet today, in the 21st century, the system persists. Despite the flight from the flock, despite the wishes of a substantial minority for a more appropriate education for their children, the Church maintains its grip.

Many bishops have pleaded that they wish to see ordered change, yet a suspicion arises that they harbour a mental reservation invoking St Augustine’s “make me pure, but not yet”.

Five years ago Bruton’s predecessor, Ruairi Quinn, attempted to tackle the problem. He set up the Forum For Patronage and Pluralism, which came to the conclusion that things had to change.

That body, peopled largely by educationalists, determined that change would initially come in the form of identifying 28 locations where patronage could transfer from the church to another body. Twenty-eight out of more than 2,500 isn’t exactly earth-shattering change, but even that couldn’t be managed. So far, just 10 schools have been divested from the Church.

Among the forum’s many recommendations was one that stipulated that there should be no cost to the exchequer for divestment. This might seem reasonable, considering the State’s role in education, but it was met with resistance within the ecclesiastical hierarchy. What we have we hold, was the attitude.

Just don’t mention the hundreds of millions still owed by the Church to the State for the victims of child abuse. (And yes, the latter is owed by congregations rather than the dioceses which generally act as patron, but it’s all part of the one, true Church).

There is no doubt but that the bishops didn’t like the proposals. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, a lonely progressive voice in the hierarchy, admitted as much in November 2015.

“I think that some of what I would call educational establishment in the Catholic Church are dragging their feet… Admittedly communities don’t like change, teachers don’t like change, they’re not the only ones. I do feel, though, that we can’t just go on talking. We have to really start showing things now,” he said.

Step forward Richard Bruton. He is taking another run at it. He quite obviously weighed up how far the Church might be willing to shift and designed his plan accordingly.

Now, local education training boards (ETBs) will conduct surveys to determine where patronage should be “reconfigured”. The minister’s initial target is for 150 schools to be transferred.

Where schools are transferred, the Church will be paid rent. This could be of the order of €10,000-€20,000 per annum, which would see up to €3m handed over each year to the bishops if 150 schools were reconfigured or transferred. So much for redesigning the manner in which the State’s children are educated for no additional cost.

Not just that, but the Church will also decide to whom patronage is transferred. One would have thought that in a functioning democracy, such a decision would be made by some instrument of State. Instead, the departing institution actually gets to anoint its successor patron.

THERE is another issue. The ETBs will determine where schools should transfer from Catholic patronage, but the board is also a patron itself, through its 11 national schools.

The ETB schools, established in 2008, are multi-denominational, but at the outset, heavy lobbying by the Catholic Church ensured that faith formation classes and sacrament preparation is conducted during the school day. Some might see such activity as contrary to inclusivity in a multi-denominational school, but the Church got its way.

There is, quite obviously, a glaring conflict of interest for the ETBs, acting as both quasi vendor in determining where schools should be divested, and purchaser in applying to be the new patron.

And to whom is the Church most likely to favour with transferring patronage? Well, it would be advisable to keep in with the ETBs, as they decide where transfer occurs. In addition, the provision of sacrament preparation within school hours would find favour with the Church when deciding to whom it wishes to hand on the baton.

Educate Together’s Paul Rowe has criticised the obvious conflicts of interest inherent in the proposals. He has a point. Educate Together, along with other patrons in gaelscoileanna, are completely disadvantaged in the system, and the goal of choice for parents is equally constrained.

It’s difficult to envisage proposals more tailored to the requirements of the Church as opposed to wider society in general and parents in particular.

The way things stand, the Church will be in a position to continue having a wider influence on schooling than is appropriate for society today.

Bruton does appear genuine in his efforts to do something. The stark reality, though, is that the Church has him wrapped neatly around its finger.

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