What Role Should The Catholic Church Play In Education?

11/03/2016 5:45 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Romano Cagnoni via Getty Images
A group of nuns, Turin, 1978. (Photo by Romano Cagnoni/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The maelstrom of events in recent years surrounding the Catholic Church has stirred up intense emotion in many of us. I have watched on with great compassion as the courageous Ballarat abuse survivors came forward to tell their stories and embark on a mission to expose the truth and hold those responsible to account.

I witnessed my local church, one of Melbourne's oldest, burn to the ground as stories emerged of the pedophile that acted as its Parish Priest for 15 years.

I have learnt of the countless suicides attributed to the unfathomable acts of clerical sex abuse as well as the lives destroyed through addiction and depression as a result.

I was left numb reading that there are an estimated 60,000 abuse survivors with little or no resources available to them for their recovery and healing.

The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for.

I was raised Catholic for the majority of my childhood. Every Sunday at 10.30 am, my Mum, sister and I attended mass at our local Parish Church (my Dad was Protestant). To this day, I can recite every prayer and hymn. I know when to stand, when to sit, when to kneel and when to shake hands. The seriousness in which we approached our religion was never questioned because THIS was the word of the Lord and who knows what would happen if we did.

But the Church made no sense at all to me. The prayers of worship seemed more like a veiled threat of consequences and eventually I made the decision that it was not for me.

I was 14 years of age when I encountered the woman who would be the catalyst that ended my devotion to Catholicism. Her name was Sister Jane and she was the principal of my school. A tall, slithery kind of woman, she terrified me and anyone else who was not 'Brides of Christ' material.

It would be true to say that I was no shrinking violet as a child. I was outspoken bordering on insubordinate, funny bordering on disruptive and I pushed the boundaries on every rule in place. But I was not a bad child. I never bullied anyone, I was well mannered and I think the overall opinion of me by my peers was that I was fun to be around. But in Sister Jane's eyes, I was possessed by the devil and she took it upon herself to exorcise it out of me.

On a weekly basis my name would be called over the public announcement monitor: "Melanie Sheppard, to Sister Jane's office." My teacher, (who incidentally became the principal some years later) showed pity on me as I took the lonely and familiar walk of shame down the corridor to her office not knowing what lay ahead.

Sometimes Sister Jane would make me wait for up to an hour, before opening the door and motioning for me to enter with her long, bony finger. My crimes varied; my socks were not pulled up, my jumper was around my waist, I threw rubbish on the ground, I was eating in my school uniform outside the school or, and this was the worst crime of all, I was seen talking to boys at the train station.

The punishments ranged from spending lunch time collecting rubbish around the playground to writing a letter of apology to her to sitting in silence on my own outside her office before and after school, praying for forgiveness. Once she caught me talking to a friend in the bathroom during class and ordered me to pack my books and come to her office because I was to be expelled. As soon as I arrived I was sent back to my classroom and told to remember how that felt as it would one day be my reality.

My experience in the Catholic school system is not an isolated one. Whilst not to be compared to the abhorrent crimes that we have heard about in recent years, the question still remains: where was the accountability for these people of authority in the school system?

If child abuse is defined as the physical, emotional or sexual mistreatment of a child, then I'll go so far as to say that the accusation of child abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church is of epidemic proportions.

Until there is an honest and transparent investigation and restructuring of teaching within the Catholic system, I question the involvement of the church and its clergy in relation to the moral and physical development of children.

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