In 2007, the Australian government introduced federal funding for a school chaplaincy program. Under the Prime Ministership of John Howard, chaplains were to provide "pastoral care" for students, but forbidden to provide counselling or to proselytise. The Government has put chaplains in over 2,500 schools, and the current Labor government plans to expand the program by a further 1,000.
Recently, there have been a number of complaints about chaplains preaching religion and stepping over the boundaries of pastoral care. Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher has slammed the program, stating that the guidelines are rife with ambiguity. The provisions regulating the conduct of chaplains are poorly defined, making it difficult to determine what exactly they are not to do.
But the problems go much deeper than poorly constructed guidelines. The overwhelming amount of chaplains employed are practising Christians. In fact, around 85% are employed by the Queensland Scripture Union - a Christian training centre for chaplains. With such a large amount of professing Christians, is it any surprise that at least some of them are proselytising to students?
Further, the Australian Psychological Association has complained that chaplains simply lack the training to deal with the issues that students may have. If, as the ombudsman recommends, minimum qualification standards are enforced, then chaplains would simply show an improvement in their level of "pastoral care". They would still lack the skills of counsellors and social workers for dealing with serious issues.
The problems that students may face can be very troubling - such as bullying, identity issues and domestic abuse. Chaplains are simply not equipped to deal with such problems. In the event that chaplains are confronted by students with such issues, they may very well give poor or counter-productive advice. They may also give a personal account of how they handle themselves in the face of trouble - and I suspect this may have something to do with Jesus.
What is wrong here is not the regulation of the program. It is the program itself. The program should be scrapped and the Government should look at better ways of nurturing students.