At a time when many people are rightly questioning facts and figures, and rolling our eyes at the concept of ‘alternative facts’, surely it is incumbent upon us to tread with great care before casting allegations into the public sphere.
In the space of 4 days, the same newspaper, Newcastle Herald, has published an astonishing 5 articles by the one journalist, talking to the same topic, Scripture Classes in NSW schools. There is little development of the story across these pieces, they are mostly repeating the same negative rhetoric toward SRE.
Given the nature of the accusations being made, it is important that the public is given balanced reporting, with opportunity for alternate views to be expressed. Sadly, such balance is absent in these articles. We read of a string of protagonists who are quoted at length, but with no SRE supporters quoted at all (with one exception being a Youthworks statement from their website). Is this story so obvious and one-sided? It is one thing to find a couple of dissenting priests, one who is known for his dislike of orthodox Christianity and therefore is hardly representative of mainstream Christians in NSW. Why not ask the many clergy who support SRE? The one-sidedness of these stories is enough to sink a battleship!
A poll was attached to one of the articles, conducted by Fairfax and asking the question, ‘Should scripture in state schools be suspended until the NSW government releases its scripture review?’ Over 73% of the 5000+ respondents answered no. The cynical side of me suspects that this poll was placed in the middle of the article in order to garner wide public support for suspending SRE, except it fell flat.
Some of the allegations are relatively minor, but others are most serious. Of gravest note is the implication that Youthworks’ Connect material has been involved in the Royal Commission into child abuse, and that the material is creating space for ‘grooming. This is fallacious and slanderous. Child abuse is a national moral issue and allegations cannot be treated lightly or flippantly. The media, and any person for that matter, should refrain from drawing ties to abuse when there is no evidence, and should there be evidence, surely the authorities including police must be informed.
One of the two articles published this morning begins by stating,
“SCRIPTURE in public schools is not an issue about religious views or what you believe about the historical accuracy of the Bible, which is where a lot of the argument seems to settle these days given the heavy involvement of evangelical Christian churches.
The scripture debate is about a more basic issue than that – child protection.
For more than three years the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has considered how institutions – churches, schools, sporting organisations, welfare providers, government departments, police, the justice system – have responded to child sexual abuse.
What can be said today, without any doubt, is that an institution with responsibility for children that fails to make child protection the top priority, is an institution where children are potentially at risk.” (Newcastle Herald, Feb 2nd)
It is astonishing to see a newspaper publishing not just sensationalism, but defamatory and slanderous claims. If I wrote an article linking an atheist group to child abuse, without clear evidence, I should expect to find myself in trouble.
Truth telling works both ways. SRE providers have a responsibility to work within the parameters set by Education Departments, and to ensure their material is age appropriate. When we make mistakes we must be eager to correct them. Evidence shows us that SRE providers continue to work well with Education Departments in fulfilling all righteousness. The Queensland review is a clear example that the system is working well, with Youthworks taking ownership of poorly worded material and being quick to amend it.
I understand that not everyone likes the Bible and Christianity, and that some Australians have a view that such things don’t have place in a secular education. It is one thing for people to disprove of Scripture classes, but it is quite another to engineer false claims in order to have these classes suspended altogether. As it became apparent in Victoria, the agenda was not to suspend classes, but to remove Christian ideas and thinking out of schools completely, and the NSW public should not be tricked into thinking that those orchestrating the campaign are intending anything less.
We should also remember that no child is compelled to take SRE classes. Families have freedom to participate or not. That many thousands are choosing to enrol their children into the classes (I believe these numbers are growing in some schools), signals that not only SRE’s popularity but also the public wanting this curriculum for their children.
Perhaps leaders of the anti-SRE groups might consider arranging a face to face meeting with SRE providers? Would that not be more constructive rather than using newspapers to throw around out-dated and misinformation?
If we truly care for our children’s well being (and I’m sure that this is the case for people across the different perspectives on SRE), surely it is in our best interest to avoid false facts and stick close to what is true.
This morning, as I read the Newcastle Herald, I remembered how a group of agitators conspired against Jesus. He did not retaliate or compromise integrity, he stood firm but not arrogantly, but with conviction and love, even for those who were accusing him. It is disingenuous to create an air of suspicion and fear by misrepresenting the facts and not publishing balanced views. We should expect a higher standard of our media, but regardless of how Christians are portrayed, we must continue to graciously pursue what is good and right and noble.
“If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18:23)
Below is a copy of the corrections that Youthworks released yesterday:
“We also submitted a correction request to the Newcastle Herald this morning, asking them to address serious inaccuracies and misleading statements regarding Connect and SRE more broadly. We are still yet the hear back from their editors.
Here are the changes we’ve asked for:
1. The Connect material never encourages students to have secrets with their SRE teachers or other adults.
2. The use of the term “Special friends” was used in the context of describing someone who is a follower of Jesus – “Jesus was asking Matthew to be one of his special friends” and “Jesus calls us to become one of his special friends”. Education Queensland acknowledged that while they understood the context – a child-friendly translation for Jesus’ disciples – the term was unsuitable in context of child protection, and asked CEP to use an alternative (p. 11 of the Education Queensland Review). There is no suggestion in the material that students should have special friendships with adults. The term has taken on a particularly insidious connotation since the Royal Commission into Institutional Abuse and will be removed from future SRE material.
3. The Education Queensland Review never accuses or suggests that Connect encourages grooming behaviour, but provides recommendations where language and terminology has been unhelpful in this context.
4. The insinuation in the story that SRE has been a feature of the Royal Commission is untrue and intentionally misleading.
5. The articles contain a decontextualized quote asking about a man born blind: “Was it a punishment from God because his parents or someone else had done something wrong?” which is used to imply that the curriculum links disability (in this instance, a man’s blindness) with sin. The quote in its actual context is a question asked of Jesus in a Bible passage, to which he immediately responds “No”. At no point are students asked this question, nor are they asked to evaluate disability in this context. Joanne McCarthy’s use of it is intentionally misleading and sensationalist.
6. The February 1 article makes no mention of the fact that the Education Queensland review found the “vast majority of Connect materials are consistent with legislation and policy concerning religious instruction”, nor that changes have already been made to the material which were reviewed by Education Queensland.
We eagerly await their reply.”
Here is the link to a statement published by Youthworks, also dated February 2nd: https://www.youthworks.net/press_centre/response-to-connect-articles-1-2-17
Update February 4th. The Herald today published another article by the same journalist, also speaking to the topic of the Royal Commission but this time there is no mention of Scripture Classes and their providers. I am only mentioning this update because in sharp contrast to the previous days articles, this one was well written and substantive.