It's Time to Deny ACCESS to our Children

Last week, Victorians were rocked by explosive revelations that ACCESS Ministries – the group that provides around 97 per cent of school chaplains and scripture volunteers in Victorian schools – has been using its privileged position in governments schools to “make disciples” of children as young as five.

ACCESS Ministries is an umbrella group of twelve Christian denominations including the Anglican Church of Australia, the Uniting Church, the Lutheran Church of Australia and the Salvation Army.

As CEO Evonne Paddison told a conference in a speech posted on the website, both Special Religious Instruction (SRI) and chaplaincy provide an “extraordinary opportunity to reach kids, with the good news about Jesus … Under God, many come to faith. Some find their way to church. What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools. Without Jesus, our students are lost.”

In case the audience missed her contention that ACCESS saw both SRI and chaplaincy as opportunities to convert young children in government schools, Paddison repeated it in the closing lines of her address:

“Churches in the West are on a slow death march. We have the opportunity to create life … What a commandment, make disciples. What a responsibility. What a privilege we have been given. Let’s go for it.”

While ACCESS is currently in the process of removing content from its website, another presentation assures us that Paddison’s comments are not an aberration, but ACCESS’s approach to doing business in government schools. It instructs church members to act like the disciples and “…follow Jesus and fish for people … we celebrate people who have been fishing … Some putting a little time aside in their week to teach [Scripture], for others putting whole careers aside to become chaplains.”

All this puts paid to ACCESS’s chairman Stephen Hale’s claim that’s Paddison has been misunderstood. “We’re not actually seeking to convert them,” said Hale. “She may have given that impression but I don’t think that’s what we actually do in reality.” To back the claim up, Hale asserts that if ACCESS was proselytising in schools, teachers would be complaining about it.

Enter the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union, that on Friday called for all monies going to ACCESS Ministries to be withdrawn. Citing ACCESS volunteers who taught their young charges gems like, “Buddha is Satan’s friend,” the union said that Paddison’s comments were “an affront to students in our secular government schools and a clear breach of the federal guidelines for the national school chaplaincy program [that prohibit proselytising].”

The AEU’s stance follows that take by Professor Gary Bouma, an Anglican Priest and the UNESCO chairman of Interreligious and Intercultural Relations. Denouncing the ACCESS curriculum as “crap,” Bouma bemoaned an education department ill-equipped to stand up to “religious bullies” like ACCESS.

Several days later, he signed an open letter with a handful of other religious and social inclusion experts. Addressed to Federal and State decision-makers – including the Prime Minister – it called for the replacement of SRI with general religious education taught by trained teachers, not evangelical Christian volunteers.

In the meantime, several cases brought by aggrieved parents are in the courts. One, concerned with school chaplaincy, will be heard by the High Court in August. A second, alleging that young students whose parents opt them out of SRI experience discrimination, is currently before the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.

Were there even a skerrick of interest among Federal or State political leaders on either side of the political divide to do something about this appalling state of affairs (the Greens at least have called for chaplaincy funds to be scrapped), the way ahead would be clear: Federal and State funds for ACCESS Ministries and its kissing cousin Scripture Union would be frozen immediately.

The hold on funding would be used for a major, principle-driven, root-and-branch rethink of how we are meeting the mental health needs of the next generation, and raising them to live peaceably in a diverse, multi-faith nation.

Special Religious Instruction would be moved outside of school hours where parents – consistent with their right to exercise control over their child’s religious upbringing – could opt them in to classes. Chaplaincy would be scrapped.

All funds freed by such changes would be immediately re-allocated to provide government schools with properly trained and desperately needed welfare staff to meet the complex support and mental health needs of children who are neglected or wrestling with eating disorders or substance abuse problems, or are supporting parents with mental health problems or physical disabilities.

So far, both the Federal and State government responses to the Paddison story have been utterly flaccid. Peter Garrett, seemingly in a desire to create yet another pink batts fiasco, has said nothing more than that his department would investigate if and when evidence of a breach is presented.

Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon has promised to talk to ACCESS Ministries and seek yet another assurance that they will abide by departmental requirements.

Such determined inaction by our nation’s leaders on both sides of the political divide has been coupled with a sort of circular logic and obfuscation worthy of Orwell’s “Newspeak.” Each time we learn of ACCESS or Scripture Union staff violating guidelines prohibiting proselytising – most recently from a detailed report on Background Briefing – such cases are described as aberrations caused by rogues or bad apples. We are told to judge the religious service provider on its claimed adherence to the guidelines. When an organisation is shown, as with the recent revelations about Paddison, to be flagrantly violating the guidelines, we are instructed to pay no attention to the CEO behind the curtain and to focus instead on the wonderful work volunteers are doing in the classroom.

More Orwellian double-speak may be in the offing. While relevant guidelines do prevent proselytising (the solicitation of a student for a decision to change belief systems), they tend to be silent on evangelising (engagement and dialogue with a student with intent to attract him/her to a particular faith group).

This “confusion” may be why ACCESS Ministries and Scripture Union are able to give the public straight-faced assurances that they are adhering to guidelines that prohibit proselytising, all the while encouraging their providers to alternate threats of eternal torture with bribes of eternal reward in order to bring young students into the Christian fold. That’s just evangelism, after all.

What such evangelism is doing in an avowedly secular school system in a tolerant multi-faith state is the question our leaders should answer. And no, the fact that it might allow Gillard to pick up some key marginal seats in Queensland, or ensure Ballieu’s Liberals hold power in the eastern suburbs isn’t good enough.

In a profile on Evonne Paddison posted on the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne website, she is said to believe that the “the opportunities for Christian teaching and pastoral care currently available in Australian schools must not be taken for granted.”

On this, I hope Paddison is right and that Australian parents, teachers, principals and fair-minded citizens of all religious persuasions will continue to join forces to bring the reign of taxpayer-funded evangelical Christian missionaries in government schools to an end.

Publication history

It's Time to Deny ACCESS to Our Children   ABC Religion & Ethics