With the ascendancy and inauguration of President Trump, a new term has been newly minted, ‘alternative facts’. ‘Facts’ which seem to be at odds with the data available, but are still being championed as authoritative. This is done, because by providing such information, it is hoped to confuse, divide, and ultimately to gain their end game – and it works. Many people seem to trust the arguments without doing any sort of fact checking, and thus the tactic of pushing alternative facts can, sadly, pay off.

Over recent days, there’s been a volley of articles which have appeared in NSW media that effectively undermine Christian involvement in SRE as well as the current state of Sydney Anglicanism. All of the articles share a strange absence of actual facts, or rather they have presented facts which have been spun so much that they bear little semblance to the truth.

The first set of articles, published by the Newcastle Herald[1]Sydney Anglican Diocese authorised scripture material that includes dissecting a dead animal“, Newcastle Herald (30 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4435240/too-many-unknowns-in-school-scripture/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools” (31 Jan 2017) –  http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “Newcastle Anglican and Catholic bishops question basis of Anglican scripture material and Bible as historic fact” (1 Feb 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4438792/scripture-in-schools-needs-to-be-reconsidered-priest/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “The NSW scripture in schools debate is not about religion, it’s about child protection” (2 Feb 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4441024/scripture-concern-is-about-protecting-kids/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “NSW principals concerned about scripture consent” (2 Feb 2017) –  http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4441340/the-trouble-with-scripture-consent-forms/?cs=305, coincided with the launch of FIRIS’s ‘Information Campaign’, and attempts to push for the suspension of SRE from NSW Schools. Indeed, many of the talking points in the articles seem to have been lifted right from FIRIS’ brochure that people have received in the letterbox.[2]FIRIS, “Say NO to scripture in NSW public schools – it’s NOT a good thing!” – http://religionsinschool.com/firis-brochure/ Specifically, claims that the material used by many Scripture teachers (Youthwork’s Connect materials) teaches about “dissecting an animal, encouraging children to have secrets with adults, linking a man’s blindness to his parents’ sins and reminding scripture teachers not to see children with disabilities as “unintelligent”.[3]Joanne McCarthy, “Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools” (31 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/?cs=305

While the article, like FIRIS, attempts to leverage the “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials”, issued by the QLD Department of Education and Training in August 2016, as its source. Many of the article’s claims are incorrect, if not outright deceptive of the actual content. It further should be noted that despite some issues, “the vast majority of Connect materials align with the Department of Education and Training’s legislation, policies, procedures or frameworks”[4]QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. i, with the materials only having “a small number of concerns that warrant removal or amendment[5]QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. i. Since that time, Youthworks have promptly ensured that they “have worked closely with Education Queensland and [their] own team of professional educators to address all lesson material identified by the review. Those amendments were submitted to Education Queensland, and we [Youthworks] are delighted that they have indicated that we have satisfied the issues raised in the review.”[6]Youthworks, “CEP response to misleading SRE claims” (1 Feb 2017) – https://www.youthworks.net/press_centre/response-to-connect-articles-1-2-17

It’s saddening that the author of these articles, Joanne McCarthy, who is known for the quality investigative journalism that helped uncover the systematic issues of child sexual abuse within certain sections of churches in Newcastle, is writing articles that demonstrate a clear lack of fact-checking and a slipping of the high-quality journalism, she has won a Gold Walkley for. Indeed, I can only hope that her commitment to justice, which she has exemplified many a time, will prevail. After all, justice requires the commitment to searching for the truth and seeking to establish facts which can stand on their own. Unfortunately, there is both a sheer lack of clear, substantiated, facts, as well as a misrepresentation of those ‘facts’ which have been provided.

Thus, for the sake of truth, let’s examine some of these claims by the articles and FIRIS more closely:

#1 – SRE encourages the keeping of secrets, special friendships with adults and possible grooming behaviour

““may encourage undesirable child safe behaviours”, such as the keeping of secrets and the formation of ‘special friendships’ with adults, likened to “possible grooming behaviour”[7]FIRIS, “Say NO to scripture in NSW public schools – it’s NOT a good thing!” – http://religionsinschool.com/firis-brochure/

“lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour””[8]Joanne McCarthy, “Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools” (31 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/?cs=305

“encouraging children to have secrets with adults”[9]Joanne McCarthy, “Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools” (31 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/?cs=305

These statements do actually find a basis in the QLD Review, wherein it states that the review found “some content that may encourage undesirable child safe behaviours, such as the keeping and intentional hiding of secrets and the formation of ‘special friendships’ with adults”,[10]QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. i and that creating “secrets with a child is identified as an example of possible grooming behaviour within the Department’s Student Protection Guideline.”[11]QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. 10

But do these statements that the Connect material promotes the ‘sharing of secrets’ and becoming ‘special friends with adults’ actually hold up? Well, the review provides several examples of where this allegedly occurs. One such example is relating to the term ‘special friends’, where the materials states ““Jesus was asking Matthew to be one of his special friends” and “Jesus calls us to become one of his special friends(Lower Primary A2, Lesson 10, p. 92-3).[12]QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. 11

Whilst, the term ‘special friend’ has gained a particularly insidious undertone since the Royal Commission, it should be noted that it is nowhere suggesting here that children ought to form “’special friendships’ with adults”. Rather, in context, the material is talking about having a special relationship with Jesus Christ. No one else. It should be also noted that Youthworks will be removing the term from further materials to prevent anyone from misunderstanding the term through the lenses of its new found notoriety. It has never encouraged students to form secrets with their SRE teachers or other adults.

Another example cited in the Review is “‘Helpful teaching techniques’ provides advice on ‘Talking one-to-one with a student’, indicating that instructors should talk to students in full view of other students or teachers, even though the conversation is private (Upper Primary, A2, p. 197).[13]QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. 11 To which it worth noting that it is a standing policy of many churches these days to never allow one-to-one with a child alone (unless it is the parent), and this approach has likewise taken by the Youthworks’ newer material which, noted in the Review, “suggest[s] another adult should be present for any one-to-one discussions.[14]QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. 10

Evidently, the Connect material, particularly the newer versions, attempts to be very careful to limit anything which can be misconstrued. Indeed, it needs to be noted that the Review never once accuses the Connect materials of encouraging behaviour which could be conceived as ‘grooming’, but rather that there are some specific terminology or language which is unhelpful. Like an editor, the Review is simply going through anything which could be potentially taken the wrong way.

On a detailed legal unpacking of Special Religious Education in NSW and “grooming”, Neil Foster published a post earlier today.

 

#2 – SRE teaches that a man’s blindness is linked to his parent’s sin

 

“The review found other lessons had the potential to be upsetting, inappropriate or likely to affect the social and emotional wellbeing of children, including a lesson for children aged 7-9 about a man born blind, which asked: “Was it a punishment from God because his parents or someone else had done something wrong?”[15]Joanne McCarthy, “Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools” (31 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/?cs=305

The Review took issue with the material’s treatment of John 9:1-12, wherein Jesus was asked about a blind man, and whether he or his parents had sinned in order for the man to have been born blind. At face value, the report took this to suggest “that a disability may have been imposed as a punishment for sin.” The issue, however, is that this question is firmly answered by Jesus stating “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,“. Jesus was effectively stating that disabilities did not come about due to sin. Likewise, there are very few Christians who would argue that disabilities are intrinsically linked to someone sinning.

 

#3 – SRE involves the dissection of animals relating to animal sacrifice

“includes the dissection of a dead animal in a lesson about animal sacrifice”[16]“Sydney Anglican Diocese authorised scripture material that includes dissecting a dead animal”, Newcastle Herald (30 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4435240/too-many-unknowns-in-school-scripture/?cs=305

Now, one may rightly question the wisdom of some of the wording, statements, and even the idea of suggesting to Scripture teachers to bring in a dead animal to dissect. I know, I do. However, the articles have intentionally implied that this could happen without any oversight by the school, and that this was related to ‘animal sacrifice’.

Both are false. Firstly, in the lesson in which this activity is proposed, the topic is not about animal sacrifice at all, but about the Body of Christ, and particularly how Christians comprise of different parts of the body, all dependent on the gifts and skills God gives us. This suggested secondary activity, which wasn’t a core component of the lesson, is attempting, I’m assuming, to illustrate how different parts do different things, and yet that every part is needed to make up the whole.

Further, SRE teachers are told to “ensure you check with your classroom teacher and/or principal that this activity is appropriate and allowed” before any such activity is carried out. Again, you may question the wisdom of such an activity, yet the reality of the facts demonstrate the very real spin in these articles as they attempt to make things appear much worse than they actually are.

 

One-sided vantage

It’s true that the Connect materials needed to be updated in order to align with the ever-changing principles and ideas within education and the public sphere – the old materials were clunky and dated, and needed to be refined. However, what McCarthy is attempting to do is shoot off volley after volley, hoping to overwhelm detractors by the sheer amount of arguments; together in which they seem impressive, but when each argument is scrutinised individually – the holes become apparent.

Murray Campbell in Melbourne, who has seen such substantially the same attacks on Scripture by others in Victoria, comments:

“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!”[17]Murray Campbell, “Post-truth hits NSW” (2 Feb 2017) – https://murraycampbell.net/2017/02/02/post-truth-hits-nsw/

Indeed, there are those, like FIRIS, and others, who are hoping that by providing enough information, or disinformation, to people – especially claims which allegedly show the heinous nature of Scripture – that people will feel that they have no other recourse but to pressure the government for its removal. One statement which shocked me at its sheer audacity was this:

““in Lessons for children about keeping secrets with adults and having “special friendships” with them were particularly concerning because “We know from the Royal Commission that encouraging ‘special friendships’ and secrets with adults endangers children and plays into the hands of predators”, Mr Shoebridge said.”

It would appear by this quote, that there is an intent to specifically link SRE to the Royal Commission. Specifically through the use of the term “Special friendships”, which as I mentioned earlier is not found in the Connect materials with the same connotations which this article adds. Further, to even suggest that the idea of “Special Friendships” as uncovered within the Royal Commission is the same as that within the material is both absurd and anachronistic.

Yet, this one-sidedness is hardly limited to McCarthy’s constant stream of arguments or to the supposed ‘truthful’ comments peddled by FIRIS.[18]FIRIS have been known to attempt to release sensationalised claims, misrepresentation, and personal attacks. For more information, please refer to the archives. An article which appeared in the Daily Telegraph around the same time attempted to claim that the Sydney Anglican Church is “rife” with abuse; a claim allegedly based from a motion which was passed at the last synod.[19]Kelly Burke, “Sydney Anglican Church rife with abuse, recent synod acknowledges“, Daily Telegraph (30 January, 2017) – http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/sydney-anglican-church-rife-with-abuse-recent-synod-acknowledges/news-story/0d72a33c11210decf4c582d37dea9fd4

However, such motion did not at all express that abuse was “rife” in the Church, but rather it recognised that that Domestic Violence is a significant problem for society at large, which also includes within the churches. Sadly, the article written by Kelly Burke is a beat up piece written to slam the doctrine of ‘headship’ and lack of female priests within the Sydney diocese whilst masquerading as being on a much more significant, and genuine, issue. As also evidenced in the McCarthy pieces, there’s a light use of facts to support her agenda.

Not only does Burke twist the understanding of the motion passed, but to provide support for her piece, she gathered two sizable quotes from individuals who attend churches which are at odds with the rest of Sydney due to differing theology. One such quote being sheer hearsay without any evidence provided [“I am told…”]. In fact, Burke’s piece lacks any evidence to substantiate her claim that abuse is “rife” within the church, and it is fascinating that she did not reach out at all to the chairman of the Sydney Diocesan Domestic Violence Task Force, Sandy Grant, who would be the best person to talk to in order to understand the passed motion.

Evidently, it’s becoming a saddening reality that the use of actual facts seem to be becoming increasingly light in journalistic pieces. After all, if a person really wanted to be provide a balanced article, they would talk to both sides. Youthworks in the case of the McCarthy articles, and the Sydney Diocesan Domestic Violence Task Force in the case of Burke. Yet, such consideration does not seem to have been factored in.

With the rise of #alternativefacts, journalists need to be very mindful that if that if they are providing ‘facts’, that they are actually facts. However, it seems for some, the truthfulness of facts aren’t what’s important. Rather, it’s how how convincing such ‘facts’ can be.

References   [ + ]

1.Sydney Anglican Diocese authorised scripture material that includes dissecting a dead animal“, Newcastle Herald (30 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4435240/too-many-unknowns-in-school-scripture/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools” (31 Jan 2017) –  http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “Newcastle Anglican and Catholic bishops question basis of Anglican scripture material and Bible as historic fact” (1 Feb 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4438792/scripture-in-schools-needs-to-be-reconsidered-priest/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “The NSW scripture in schools debate is not about religion, it’s about child protection” (2 Feb 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4441024/scripture-concern-is-about-protecting-kids/?cs=305; Joanne McCarthy, “NSW principals concerned about scripture consent” (2 Feb 2017) –  http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4441340/the-trouble-with-scripture-consent-forms/?cs=305
2.FIRIS, “Say NO to scripture in NSW public schools – it’s NOT a good thing!” – http://religionsinschool.com/firis-brochure/
3, 8, 9, 15.Joanne McCarthy, “Education Minister Rob Stokes asked to immediately suspend scripture in NSW schools” (31 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4431811/dead-animal-dissection-and-the-scripture-class/?cs=305
4, 5, 10.QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. i
6.Youthworks, “CEP response to misleading SRE claims” (1 Feb 2017) – https://www.youthworks.net/press_centre/response-to-connect-articles-1-2-17
7.FIRIS, “Say NO to scripture in NSW public schools – it’s NOT a good thing!” – http://religionsinschool.com/firis-brochure/
11, 14.QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. 10
12, 13.QLD Department of Education and Training, “Report on the Review of the Connect Religious Instruction Materials” pg. 11
16.“Sydney Anglican Diocese authorised scripture material that includes dissecting a dead animal”, Newcastle Herald (30 Jan 2017) – http://www.theherald.com.au/story/4435240/too-many-unknowns-in-school-scripture/?cs=305
17.Murray Campbell, “Post-truth hits NSW” (2 Feb 2017) – https://murraycampbell.net/2017/02/02/post-truth-hits-nsw/
18.FIRIS have been known to attempt to release sensationalised claims, misrepresentation, and personal attacks. For more information, please refer to the archives.
19.Kelly Burke, “Sydney Anglican Church rife with abuse, recent synod acknowledges“, Daily Telegraph (30 January, 2017) – http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/sydney-anglican-church-rife-with-abuse-recent-synod-acknowledges/news-story/0d72a33c11210decf4c582d37dea9fd4