Dr Angelo Bottone, The Iona Institute
Practising Catholic students and staff members are sometimes targeted for bullying in Irish schools, according to a major new report. Teachers see evidence of pressure on students to hide their religion.
A survey of 214 Religious Education teachers, conducted by the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre in Dublin City University, found that students of faith, particularly Catholic, are a vulnerable group. “Holding a religious worldview can be a lonely experience in modern Ireland”, said one of the respondents.
According to the “Religious Inclusive Education” report, authored by Dr. Amalee Meehan and Derek A. Laffan MSc, students who are open about their faith can experience hostility from other students and even from staff.
“Expressing religious based convictions can lead to low level bullying by staff members … e.g. expressing anti-abortion views”, noted one of the participants.
The report refers to secondary school students. Those who identify as Catholic are the group most likely to be associated to negative stereotypes, while those who identify as atheist are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Respondents voiced concern about anti-religious views such as ‘the lazy way that Muslims can be categorised as terrorists, and Catholics as paedophiles or supportive of such behaviour’. (p. 22)
According to the study, these findings are consistent with international research showing that in societies which experience a rapid change from high religious practice to wide secularisation, those who continue to practise are more vulnerable to bullying. This is happening in Ireland now.
“It is socially acceptable in Ireland to insult and belittle Catholics and Catholicism”, noted one of the teachers. It is seen as archaic to hold Catholic values, said another.
Religiously committed students feel vulnerable as they are a minority in Irish schools now. A different study mentioned in the report claims that when religious students are forced to conceal or deny their identity, both their personal and the school’s well-being are compromised. “This has particular implications for Irish schools, where it seems that some young people are religious at some level, but may not want to appear so”, noted the authors of the report. (p. 25)
Even religious education teachers experienced hostility. “They spoke of ‘having to apologise for being Catholic’ and ‘having to justify a Catholic ethos.’“ (p. 23)
The teachers complained about how faith schools are inaccurately portrayed in the Irish media and depicted in Irish society, noting that a secular agenda can often be promoted, instead of a fully inclusive one which respect all faiths.
The study was mentioned in June at the Oireacthas Committee on Education by Prof. James O’Higgins Norman, the head of the anti-bullying unit at DCU who spoke about bullying in school and the impact on mental health.
The report acknowledges the importance of religious education in preparing young people to live in a global society. “Further attention needs to be given to creating inclusive classrooms in which the beliefs and sensibilities of every child is respected.”, it says.
Obviously, this cannot be achieved without recognising the problem that this study raises, i.e. practicing Catholics are being bullied because of their faith.
It would also be good to know what is happening in other education settings. We saw what happened to Katie Ascough when she was elected head of the Students’ Union at UCD in 2017. She was subjected to appalling vitriol because of her Catholic and pro-life beliefs.
When society in general is becoming more hostile to religious believers, and especially the Catholic faith, the findings of this valuable new study shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.