Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill 2021: Second Stage [Private Members]


11:32 am

Photo of Thomas PringleThomas Pringle (Donegal, Independent)

I will first make a point about some of the comments of the previous speakers. We had a debate in this House last night about the mother and baby homes and the treatment of women by the State. Yet, the same Members have come in today to talk about the need for a religious aspect in our schools. It is the exact same religious aspect in our schools that led to the mother and baby home situation in the State. The position that religion has held in the State has led to all of that. This Bill is about breaking that down, and it should be about breaking it down. It is vitally important.

I strongly support the Education (Health, Relationships and Sex Education) Bill to standardise sex education in schools that should be fact-based and completely free from religious influence. We currently have a school system that is geared around a religious ethos that, at best, caters to the religious beliefs of a portion of the school population. At worst, and in reality, it alienates a considerable proportion of those children and families who are non-practising or of a different faith. Non-denominational families and families of other faiths have always had to ensure that any religious education pertaining to their own faith system was received outside of school. Why is it that children of the Catholic faith cannot also receive their religious education in a similar manner, at home or within the structures of their church?

Some say that the presence of the Catholic ethos in public schools should not be seen as negative. This ignores the detrimental impact it can have on a person if he or she is forced, due to lack of alternative options, to learn and grow in an environment that places greater importance and emphasis on one particular faith. It creates a hierarchy and while those who are not in the minority may not intend that or feel it, this does not make it any less so. Perhaps, however, this is what is intended by the hierarchy to ensure that the hierarchy is there. It might be unspoken and it might not be necessary to have it spoken out, but it is always there and in place, and at the back of everything that happens.

The time has come to acknowledge that Ireland is a multicultural and multi-denominational State. Our strengths are found in our inclusion and our diversity. Removing the Catholic ethos from our schools does not stop families from encouraging and continuing with a valued theological education outside of shared school time. Removing the Catholic ethos from our schools will allow all children of all faiths to feel that faith is a personal aspect of a person, which should be treated with kindness, respect and equality. Unfortunately, I believe that the ethos of Catholic schools maintaining as it is, and management bodies of national schools staying within Catholic control, very often has a lot to do with parents not wanting to take the responsibility. The local parish priest takes the responsibility and controls the board of management, appoints people onto it, and they will manage everything. They manage recruitment of teachers and they manage the buildings and so on. The parents really do not have to have much involvement. They can send their children to school, they get an education and they do not have to have much involvement in the day-to-day running of the school. We need to get to a system where parents feel that they can get involved, have the time to do it and want to do it. Ultimately, this is what will break down the Catholic management of schools. It is true that the management of the school will be there in the background doing all of those things and as long as everything is going along grand, it will be fine for the parents but when there is a problem, this is when the Catholic ethos comes out. That is ultimately the real problem.

There is a growing and undeniable global problem of increased sexual abuse and assault occurring, not only in dark alleys at night, but online, within relationships and between members of shared communities. A large part of this is due to a lack of education on important issues such as seeking and understanding consent, and creating and respecting boundaries around bodily autonomy. Some Members today spoke about the importance of parents in sex education. Unfortunately, the main portal for sex education for children now is the Internet. That is where most children find their sex education and this is why we are in the situation we are in. Schools have to pick up and actually play a role in ensuring that it is done properly.

In addition to these issues, we have an ethos in this country which has told us, generation after generation, that sex is shameful. Women’s bodies are heavily policed. The ongoing debate surrounding which body parts of a male presenting body can be posted on Instagram in comparison to a female body presenting, demonstrates the double standards here. Victim blaming occurs not only in our conversations but in our courts. The State-sanctioned atrocities within the mother and baby homes continue to remind us of how the State and the Catholic Church painted women who fell pregnant. The fact that a man was also involved is ignored. Sex carries a shame and that shame was and is laid upon the shoulders of Irish girls and women. If Ireland is to acknowledge and embrace a future that brims with multiple cultures, theologies and philosophies, it is imperative, that we remove the Catholic ethos as a barrier to such welcome diversity and equality.

It is also vital, in order to show a true understanding of the role of the State and the church in the systemic abuse carried out against our women and children, that the Government admits to the fact that painting sex as a shameful act leaves no scope for a meaningful understanding and education of what is, frankly, a natural part of adult life. Let us use this proposal as an opportunity to shed light on an area that is crying out for thoughtful education and attention. Sweeping issues under a rug or labelling them as taboo or shrouded in sin has not worked in the past and will certainly not work in the future. Why not place some trust and hope in future generations, that by providing fact-based, person-centred and empathetic sex education, we can help to develop a culture that is based on mutual respect, boundaries and care for one another? That is the very culture that threatens the ethos of the schools we are talking about.


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