Faith in the System: Are Parents Losing Trust in Catholic Schools?

On the 26th August 2019, Australians held their breath as the fate of Cardinal George Pell was determined by the Victoria Court of Appeal. Pell lost his appeal over five sexual abuse charges in a 2-1 ruling. As a result, Pell will continue to serve his six-year sentence and will eligible for parole after three years and eight months. With the widespread coverage of Pell’s case, it is worth considering how his convictions will impact on perceptions of the church in Australia, and Catholic schools.

The Catholic school sector comprises 1750 schools across Australia and educates approximately 800,000 students. Statistics released to the Australian Education Union reveal that the proportion of students attending Catholic Schools across Australia is forecasted to drop from 18.5% to 17.2% between now and 2027. In NSW, this equates to a loss of 8400 students over the next decade, despite a population boom. Conversely, enrolment in public and independent schools are predicted to steadily increase.

While Catholic education leaders have attributed this decline to a rise in school fees, other commentators argue that the Royal Commission Into Child Sex Abuse and have had an adverse effect on parents trust in the Catholic system.

The 2017 Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse report, discusses numerous accounts where Catholic schools failed to take effective action in response to internal complaints of child sexual abuse. The reports writers cite ineffective leadership, flawed governance, inadequate reporting and unhealthy school cultures as common factors which perpetuated the risk of sexual harm in schools. Catholic Schools Parents Australia raised a further issue by indicating that many parents they encountered did not understand the school’s policies regarding child protection. This proved to be highly problematic, as parents were unaware of how to lodge a formal complaint, particularly in regard to vexed topics such as child sexual abuse.

More recently, Catholic school teachers have verbalised their contempt in the wake of the Cardinal Pell scandal. One teacher, writing anonymously for SBS Insight expressed outrage that teaching staff had been instructed by the Catholic Education Office to say they were “saddened” by these “unfortunate revelations” when responding to parents directing anger at the church.

At this stage, we cannot determine the impact Pell’s conviction will have on enrolment rates at Sydney’s Catholic schools. In saying this, the Catholic system has been subject to increasing scrutiny as Australian’s demand greater accountability and transparency.

Further Reading:

Child Abuse Royal Commission – Final Report

SMH – Catholic school numbers to stagnate over next decade

SMH – Guilty cardinal should be stripped of his honours

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