Page 3, 21st March 2008

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Page 3, 21st March 2008 — Bishop quizzed on 'fundamentalism' by MPs
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Bishop quizzed on 'fundamentalism' by MPs

Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue is examined over his acclaimed document on Catholic schools

BY SIMON CALDWELL

MPS HAVE questioned a Catholic bishop about a document instructing schools to teach sex education solely within the context of marriage.

Bishop Patrick O'Donoghue of Lancaster was asked to give evidence to an inquiry by the House of Commons Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families last week after he banned "values-free" sex education from schools.

He was made to explain why a document he published entitled Fit for Mission? prohibited students in state-funded Catholic schools from raising money for organisations with "anti-life policies", including Amnesty International, the human tights group that last August adopted a policy in favour of abortion.

He said that as a Catholic bishop he was deeply concerned by Amnesty's change of policy.

Committee members also objected to instructions in the document to remove books from school libraries that "contain polemic against religion in general". These include the works of atheist children's author Philip Pullman, Karl Marx, a founder of Communism, and French philosopher Albert Camus.

Fiona MoTaggart, the Labour MP for Slough, said she was extremely concerned that children would be denied access to great works of fiction and non-fiction if the bishop's ban were implemented. "I would not expect a school to promote material that was lies but I also would also expect children to encounter a wide range of material even if they then need to be given the tools to criticise them," she said.

Bishop O'Donoghue

answered: "I think there has to be a vetting of material given the age range of children in schools. There is certain material that you do not put in front of them. Supposing you went into a school and you found in the library material that said the Holocaust has never taken place."

The bishop was asked by Banry Sheennan, chairman of the six-member committee, if the policies of the Catholic Church had changed under the "present occupant of the Vatican", a reference to Pope Benedict XVI.

Bishop O'Donoghue answered that they had not changed as far as his diocese was concerned.

Fit for Mission? tells Catholic schools that they may not present "the secular view on sex outside marriage, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and Aids, and abortion" as "neutral information",

It says that "so-called" safe sex was based on the "deluded theory that the condom can provide adequate protection against Aids".

Mr Sheerrnan, the Labour MP for Huddersfield, said last year that he wanted to "tease out" what was happening in Catholic education.

"It seems to me that faith education works all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith," he said. "But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked."

But Bishop O'Donoghue told the committee that "every school has a philosophy, and a philosophy which puts God at the centre and morality as objective is no less powerful than that which says God is irrelevant and morality is up to the individual choice."

"To our view, the role of democracy is to embrace all views, and not to infringe on basic human rights," he said, adding that "the impression that is coming across" from Parliament and the media was that "the only true democratic stance is ... that God is irrelevant and that morality is up to the individual".

Since its publication late last year there has been demand for the document in such countries as America, Canada, Australia, France and Spain, he said.

Three senior Vatican offi

cials have praised it, including Cardinal William Levada, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who said last month that the document "challenges the rise of relativism" and that it was a model for all Catholic dioceses around the world to follow.

The parliamentary inquiry

will look at whether -faith schools" should continue to be publicly funded and control their own pupil admissions. It will also examine how well such schools are able to contribute to community cohesion, promote tolerance. and prepare people for life in a multicultural society.

Peter Irvine of the Catholic Education Service (CES), an agency of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. said he was sceptical about claims that Catholic schools actively sought to exclude poor and less able pupils by using covert social selection.

"I would deplore it if

Catholic schools discriminated in any way against poor students,he said in evidence to the select committee last week. "I'm not convinced. nationally. that it does."

He told the committee that official figures from the schools watchdog Ofsted showed that 600 primary and secondary Catholic schools inspected between 2003 and 2005 had the same number of pupils on free school meals or with special educational needs as the national average.

He said the percentage of children on free school meals could vary in Catholic schools compared with regular state schools because catchment areas were much wider, Earlier Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, claimed "significant" numbers of schools were flouting admission rules. with some charging parents hundreds of pounds to secure places for their children and requesting details about marital status and family incomes. He said such breaches were found disproportionately in faith schools and in others that controlled their own admissions.

The Government admitted that Mr Ball's statement was based on "unverified data".

Oona Stannard, the director of the CES, said: "It is unfortunate that the admissions arrangements being alluded to by Government had not been thoroughly looked into before issuing such a potentially misleading statement. We urge Government and others not to jump to premature conclusions based on a rudimentary look at a small sample of unverified admissions arrangements."

It later emerged that MT Balls's statement was issued on the same day as figures were released showing that more than 100,000 children were denied a place in schools of their parents' choice.

The Tories have since accused Mr Balls of issuing the statement in order to "bury bad news".




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