۷ مهر ۱۴۰۱ |۳ ربیع‌الاول ۱۴۴۴ | Sep 29, 2022
Caragh Larsen

Caragh Larsen, a former Schools Ministry Group chaplain at two Adelaide public primary schools, said the code banning “cohabitation” and “sexually intrusive” behaviour left unmarried and LGBTQ+ staff vulnerable.

Hawzah News Agency – Australia’s second biggest schools chaplaincy provider imposes a code that discriminates against staff based on relationship status and sexual conduct, a whistleblower has alleged.

Caragh Larsen, a former Schools Ministry Group chaplain at two Adelaide public primary schools, said the code banning “cohabitation” and “sexually intrusive” behaviour left unmarried and LGBTQ+ staff vulnerable.

Larsen’s job at one school was funded through the federal chaplaincy program, which gives $60m a year for chaplains connected to religious groups to provide pastoral care services in schools. The other position was funded by the South Australian government.

Proselytising in public schools is banned, but Larsen said SMG chaplains were encouraged to speak about their faith with students, when asked, and praised for directing them to church youth groups.

The SMG code states that “it is unacceptable for a pastoral care worker to initiate or become involved in relationships of a sexual or inappropriate nature with any person to whom they are not married”.

That includes relationships which “involve cohabitation or any behaviour which is considered to be sexually intrusive by another person”.

Larsen, a qualified counsellor, told Guardian Australia the clause meant “we had to be married, or living on our own”.

Schools Ministry Group is the biggest chaplaincy provider in South Australia, providing 263 chaplains to schools according to its 2019 annual report. There is no breakdown of how many are federally funded, but it received $5.3m in overall government funding in the same year.

SMG did not respond to questions about how “sexually intrusive” conduct was defined, or whether the code enabled discrimination on relationship status and lawful sexual conduct.

It said its chaplains “must agree to uphold standards and to be part of a supportive faith community that aligns with our Christian values”.

“This is not only reasonable but is consistent with the wellbeing model of providing social, emotional and spiritual support.”

Pressure to join church group

Larsen is a lifelong Christian who was hired by SMG to work in the schools in 2021 despite not belonging to a particular church group at the time.

After she was employed, Larsen said, she faced “huge pressure” to join a church group. She said she relented by attending once a month to stop “horrible conversations about church”.

Larsen said she felt “very uncomfortable” at regular meetings with other chaplains because she “realised they do have an agenda – they want a Christian presence in schools”.

Larsen said it was clear chaplains could not initiate conversations about God, but the lines were “blurry”, and discussions were allowed if children asked chaplains them about their faith.

Chaplains were told they could “pray at school, walking around praying over the school yard”.

Larsen said she was “gobsmacked” when another chaplain said he had got children to attend his church’s youth group, and he was praised for it. “This was so wrong.”

Larsen said in her experience a lot of Christians, though not all, believed homosexuality was a sin.

“I worry about the young people in the schools that are being taken care of by pastoral care workers who think like that … it’s quite dangerous.”

She said there was never any “overt homophobic talk” at SMG, but it bothered her that Christian staff likely believed it was a sin.

“I worry about that sort of presence in schools, you’ve got vulnerable young people starting to identify as non-binary or gay, or in some circumstances trans.”

Larsen said that when she discussed children’s behavioural issues – such as a distressed student throwing things in the classroom – an SMG manager told her that was a “demonic response” to the “presence of God” that chaplains brought into a school.

“I felt physically unwell,” she said. “I know that child, I know the trauma and why they were acting like that.

“[The SMG manager is] not in a place to speak like that. They have no idea about their trauma. This is dangerous.”

SMG said it was “unable to comment on or verify unfounded allegations and speculation”, but such comments were “not endorsed by SMG”.

It said chaplains, engaged voluntarily by schools, “play a cooperative and important role” and were “trained in recognising mental health issues and referring them appropriately in accordance with commonwealth standards”.

“Chaplains deal with students and the wider school community irrespective of their faith beliefs and … chaplains do not share faith beliefs unless requested by students.

“In South Australia there has never been a complaint against a chaplain for proselytising.”

The federal and South Australian education departments both said Larsen raised no complaints with them.

The South Australian department said chaplaincy service providers “may have their own employment terms and conditions … that we do not place on our own employees” including “in relation to community work, personal relationships, and religious participation” .

“The department’s national school chaplaincy procedure specifically identifies this as a potential issue and suggests schools consider whether a service provider’s employment conditions would affect the delivery of the program at the school.”

“The Department for Education has confirmed with Schools Ministry Group that language in relation to ‘demonic response’ is not appropriate and should not be used in the context of the work of pastoral care workers.” It said it would make further inquiries into the allegation.

The department said pastoral care workers were banned from proselytising, which “refers to any action that converts or attempts to convert a child or young person to share their beliefs”.

“Each context will determine whether this requirement has been met.”

The federal department said the states and territories were responsible for complaints about chaplaincy providers.

“National school chaplains may be of any faith and are not permitted to proselytise, and must respect, accept and be sensitive to other people’s views, values and beliefs.”

Larsen said in retrospect perhaps she should have made a complaint, but the public had a right to know how the chaplaincy program worked – because schools and parents had “no idea”.

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