Tony Abbott’s Coalition has allocated nearly $250 million to Chaplaincy Programs over four years in the latest budget, which offers schools up to $24,000 per year to pay for a chaplain approximately two days a week.
ACCESS Ministries is one of the providers of chaplains in Victoria, providing approximately 330 schools with Special Religious Instructors, and came under scrutiny in February when it was revealed one of their educators was distributing homophobic materials.
Students at Torquay College were handed brochures that instructed children to seek counselling if they had homosexual feelings. The Victorian Education Department then conducted an investigation into the incident after stating the action was “inappropriate and offensive”.
A spokesperson from the Victorian Education Department told MCV, “the investigation has now been completed and we are in the process of gaining a right of reply from Access Ministries”.
Acting CEO of ACCESS Ministries, Dawn Penney, said the organisation represents 12 mainstream Churches which all hold their own views on the matter of homosexuality.
“The ACCESS ministries CRE (Christian Religious Education) program and materials do not stray into areas of sexuality, none of our approved material mentions this subject” she told MCV.
Former Victorian State Director of the Australian Christian Lobby, Rob Ward, is now the General Manager of Development and Communications at ACCESS Ministries, and has campaigned against same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption.
In 2011 in response to the launch of the “Fair go, sport!” program, a program aimed at increasing awareness of sexual and gender diversity in sport, Ward said:
“The suggestion that the aim is to have the sexual orientation of gay, lesbian and transgender sportspeople…so public that it’s normal, so people don’t think about it is very troubling.”
Darren McMahon is the Director and Presenter of Your Dream Incorporated in Sydney and runs chaplaincy programs through NSW, and has significant ties to Hillsong Church.
Hillsong Church has had a controversial history with the gay community regarding their involvement with the now dismantled Mercy Ministries and the recently abolished Living Waters Australia, which ran ex-gay and conversion camps.
McMahon graduated from the Hillsong International Leadership College in 1993, and has been an avid “friend” of the Church ever since.
Although McMahon was unaware of the acronym LGBTI, he told MCV he “doesn’t and has never discriminated against anyone’s life choices.” He also said he is unsure if any of his youth workers have had any training in how to deal with young LGBTI and questioning youth.
LGBTI activists are also questioning the qualifications of chaplaincy workers in dealing with same-sex attracted youth. It is understood that the training can be as little as a five-day intensive course in ‘Chaplaincy Essentials’ and is all that is required by some chaplain organisations.
Studies on LGBTI youth have consistently shown that they have higher rates of suicide and depression than their heterosexual counterparts and Jacqui Tomlins, a founding member of the Australian Equality Party and parent of three, told MCV she was appalled at the allocation of funds to the Chaplaincy Program.
“Young people – especially those who might be questioning their sexuality or sexual identity, need access to good, non-judgemental counsellors who can provide advice and guidance that is not based on any religious foundation.
“Likewise, when my kids are in high school I want to be confident that their same-sex family will be treated with the same regard and respect as any other family.
“While I’m sure some individual chaplains may provide non-judgemental support, it makes far greater sense to employ trained, secular social workers or counsellors whose guidance does not stem from a religious system that can, and often does, treat us and our families with disrespect or contempt,” she said.
The funding is a continuation of the Chaplaincy Scheme introduced by John Howard, but the Abbott Government has changed back the conditions to prevent School Principals from being able to elect a secular student welfare worker instead of a chaplain.
Defending the decision to not allow non-religious student welfare workers to access funding, which was possible under the previous Labor Government, Education Minister Christopher Pyne told The Guardian, “counsellors and social workers in schools are really the responsibility of the states and territories.”
In response, Federal President of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos, noted:
“Where does the Australian constitution say that the Federal Government is responsible for school chaplains?”
In the same article, Opposition Education Spokeswoman, Kate Ellis, said it was wrong for the government to direct funding only to chaplains who had a “direct link to organised religion”.
At the time of going to print MCV was yet to hear back from the Department of Education.
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