According to the new policy guidelines under Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government, chaplains must have religious qualifications to be recognized or accepted by a religious institution. This means non-religious people working as student welfare officers currently may soon be sacked and replaced by people of faith. Statistically, as many as 500 non-religious chaplains of Australia’s total 2,300 school chaplains stand the risk of losing their jobs under this policy chalked out by the federal government. The policy will be implemented from the start of 2015.
Martin Grigg, CEO of Onpsych, a company responsible for training people who wish to work as social workers or psychologists in schools, said he would approach all religious institutions over the next two months to see if they would be willing to endorse secular staff.
“They'll need to be well qualified, they'll need to have very good experience and have the support of the school,” Mr Grigg said. “We will need to see references and CVs but given all that, we hope that we can find a religious institution that will back us and back those workers and give the schools the choices I think they need.”
Australia’s previous Labor-run federal government offered schools the choice of secular or religious staff to work as chaplains. While most schools preferred religious chaplains, some schools were willing to incorporate secular ones.
“Many of the schools which are established around their religion are using the chaplaincy to work with psychologists and social workers because they believed that the religious side of their education program was very well catered for and they didn't need any additional support,” he said. “But they had identified a need for psychologists, social workers or welfare officers.”
Colleen Sweeney, who is a student welfare officer at Sydney’s Asquith Boy’s High School, said she is not particularly religious but still highly qualified to work as a chaplain, considering her decade-long work with the Department of Community Services, that worked extensively with street children, sexual abuse victims and young offenders. Even though she is employed under the school’s chaplaincy program at the moment, she will not be coming back next year.
“I think it's highly unfair,” said Sweeney. “The kids are ultimately the ones who are going to suffer because you build those relationships. They trust you, they tell you things they've never told anyone, things they are ashamed of, things they worry about and then you are gone, so they are the ones who are going to suffer. … I would certainly be very disappointed that it's got to the point where, rather than be selected for a job on merit, you are selected on the basis of religion.”
Kim Pinnock, a member of the school’s Parents and Citizens Council, which hired Sweeney earlier, said the school was sad about losing her.
“We had some very good people apply for the job, so it was actually difficult to choose someone,” Pinnock said. “Colleen was very well qualified and so she was chosen deliberately on her merits to support the boys at the school. She's certainly done that very well so we really support her and want to keep her.”
Under the new chaplaincy program, school chaplains can belong to any faith including Christianity or Islam but they cannot be non-religious.
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