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Pratt, Sen Louise
School Chaplaincy Program
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Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (19:29): I rise this evening to share my concerns in this place about the coalition School Chaplaincy Program. There is in our country a mounting and substantial evidence base that young people, especially young lesbian, gay, bisexual or other gender non-conforming people, are being discriminated against by many school chaplains provided through the national school chaplaincy program. I have worked with school chaplains over the years and I have found them to be well-intentioned people. But I also know about the very real suffering that the anti-gay beliefs that some of them hold can cause LGBT young people, even when no harm is intended.
As we know, LGBT young people are at an extremely disproportionate risk of self-harm, suicide and general feelings of shame and depression compared to non-LGBT youth. These feelings are generated not because there is any wrong with their identity but because of the stigma directed towards them by others. And so, while many young people may have positive chaplain experiences ourselves, we in this place have to listen to what young people tell us, especially our most vulnerable youth.
Last week, the LGBT rights organisation All Out ran a survey inviting Australians to share their stories of school chaplains. Over 2,200 people responded, including over 1,000 high-school students aged 13 to 18. Many of these students came from WA and 15 per cent identified as L, G, B or T. The Australian community has been debating school chaplains for some time, but this is the first time that we have heard from the students themselves, and the stories that they have shared are overwhelming. We have heard dozens of firsthand student accounts that describe chaplains as being explicitly anti-gay. Here is one short excerpt:
My best friend was getting bullied by other students last year for being gay, so went to speak to our school chaplain about it. ... He suffers from anxiety and depression, has attempted suicide in the past and occasionally self-harms. He spoke to our chaplain about being bullied and about how he has begun to believe what people are saying about him being a 'fag' and 'a disgusting, gay idiot'. ... The chaplain told him that his bullies were right and that homosexuality is a degrading sin that sends people to hell. .... That night I got a phone call from his Mum telling me he had tried to overdose on medicine pills and was in hospital having his stomach pumped.
And here is another:
... this term the Chaplain warned us against ... non-marital sex. When I asked him about what a lesbian couple of faith would do if they couldn't get married, he simply replied that gay and lesbian people could never be proper Christians. … He went on to talk about how ... gays and lesbians were ... unnatural, indecent and perverse. ... this event made me feel as if my sexuality was something to be ashamed of. I consider myself a strong person, and for this to affect me so deeply made me realise the dangers of mixing religion with public education.
It is important to mention that a minority of students—about five to 10 per cent of students in this survey—reported positive experiences with chaplains, including stories of chaplains helping them to overcome self-esteem issues and bullying. Of the 1,000 or so parents and other adults who were part of the survey, about 25 per cent reported positive chaplain experiences, including how chaplains had boosted confidence. However, most of the stories were negative, and almost all of the stories from LGBT young people were negative. As well as the two stories I have just quoted, students described chaplains helping them to 'pray the gay away' and advising them to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to 'correct' their same sex attraction. One very serious story involved a student being told by a chaplain that they should leave home because they had homosexual parents. The family felt unwelcome at the school and subsequently moved. Many non-Christian students also reported that chaplains had harassed them about adopting religion.
In my years as a senator I have heard countless stories of the challenges that LGBT young people face at school, but even I am overwhelmed by some of the heartbreaking stories that this survey revealed—all breaches of program guidelines and the duty of care owed to these students, a duty of care that these stories demonstrate is being breached, a duty of care that states these services must not be biased on the grounds of religious ideology or sexuality. Extraordinarily, the government has refused to give any assurances that even the current program's standards and safeguards will be maintained—and this could lead to the rules designed to prevent this kind of proselytising being wound back even further
And this is not even the whole picture. I have also had a few very serious reports passed on to me this week, again stories reported by Western Australian school students who are especially vulnerable because of their sexual orientations. These stories describe chaplains committing serious criminal offences against them. Needless to say, these stories will be further investigated and the children will be connected to the appropriate police and support services, where this has not already happened. But obviously we are dealing with a system that is broken and not working, a system that is failing our most vulnerable youth.
I know some great chaplains. They work with love and authenticity, doing wonderful things for our young people. But on a national level we must face the fact that our chaplaincy program is failing Australian young people. We know this because of a steady accumulation of media investigations revealing everything from the distribution of homophobic 'biblezines' in our schools to continuous proselytizing to students, against their parents wishes. We know it because of the findings of the Northern Territory Ombudsman in 2009 and similar findings in 2011 by the Federal Ombudsman. We know it because of the damning reviews of this program by academic experts such as Professor Marion Maddox.
It is extraordinary to me that, in the face of such issues, qualified non-religious youth workers are being pushed out of this program in favour of chaplains. A choice between a chaplain or a youth worker is actually being taken away from schools—schools will now only be able to choose a chaplain. It is extraordinary that a government that has promoted choice and autonomy for our schools is forcing chaplains over youth workers on those schools.
I would also like to highlight that questions have begun to surface about links between Australia's three biggest school chaplain providers—Access Ministries, Scripture Union Queensland and GenR8 Ministries—and extreme anti-gay movements such as the Lausanne evangelical conference. This conference is well known for its links to anti-gay movements that promote anti-homosexuality laws in African countries—places like Uganda and Nigeria, where we have seen extreme anti-gay laws put forward promoting things like imprisonment and the death penalty.
This week, the High Court will hand down its decision on whether the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is unconstitutional, and I hope that the court will find that the Constitution does indeed prevent the federal government from handing over money to religious providers to put untrained chaplains in our schools—chaplains who, however well intended, are in many cases harming our children.
Regardless of the outcome, it is important to me to see this program stopped. Any person giving counselling to our young people should have the proper qualifications, as recognised by organisations like the Psychological Association, and should not hold discriminatory views. Our young people have told us very clearly that they do not feel safe at school, and it is our job to listen to them and to respond. (Time expired)