The Age - Australia May 13, 2011
We are not trying to convert kids: Bishop
by Jewel Topsfield, Mex Cooper
The Christian group responsible for religious education in Victorian government schools has denied it is trying to convert children to its faith.
Access Ministries chair Bishop Stephen Hale defended the role played by its religious educators and chaplains in schools, who he said did not breach government guidelines.
The Age revealed today that Access Ministries chief executive Evonne Paddison told a church conference in 2008: "We need to go and make disciples".
"In Australia, we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples," she told the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion national conference in Melbourne.
Bishop Hale said despite Dr Paddison's comments, which will be investigated by state and federal governments, Access Ministries was not proselytising to students.
"We're not actually seeking to convert them and she may have given that impression but I don't think that's what we actually do in reality," he told ABC 774.
Bishop Hale described teaching children Christian stories and values without pressuring them to adopt Christianity as "a pretty tricky exercise".
"We are extremely respectful of the balancing act that's involved," he said.
He said teachers remained in classrooms during religious instruction and if guidelines were being breached there would be more complaints.
The Victorian branch president of the Australian Education Union, Mary Bluett, said most volunteers appeared to adhere to the guidelines but there had been some shocking examples.
"Comments such as, 'Buddha is Satan's friend' ... and things like that clearly breach the guidelines," she said.
Ms Bluett said religious instruction should be offered outside of school hours.
Schools Minister Peter Garrett said he would look closely at Dr Paddison's remarks after being provided with a recording from the conference.
He will ask his department for advice on any action that might need to be taken.
"The guidelines for the National School Chaplaincy Program are very clear; any breach of those guidelines will be investigated," Mr Garrett said. "If there is any evidence of a breach it should be referred to the department for investigation."
Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon said the Victorian government did not "in any way, shape or form condone proselytising".
"We will be talking to Access Ministries and seeking an assurance from them that their instructors abide by this requirement," Mr Dixon said.
Access Ministries provides chaplains to 281 Victorian schools and its volunteers teach 96 per cent of special religious instruction in Victorian schools.
The Victorian government announced an extra $200,000 a year to Access Ministries in this month's budget to fund 196 chaplains. This brings the total state government contribution to $500,000 a year for four years.
The national school chaplaincy program, introduced by the Howard government, also received a $222 million boost in this week's federal budget, to fund chaplains for up to 3700 schools by 2014.
The code of conduct for the school chaplaincy program states: "A chaplain should not take advantage of his or her privileged position to proselytise for that denomination or religious belief."
with Alana Rosenbaum
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