Catholic primary schools are facing one of the most significant overhauls in their 150-year history

Reform: St Joseph's Primary School principal Michael Gray supports reform in Catholic primary schools. Picture: Rob Gunstone
Reform: St Joseph's Primary School principal Michael Gray supports reform in Catholic primary schools. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Catholic primary school principals are calling for greater control in a push that would remove parish priests from governance roles.

But Victorian Association of Catholic Primary School Principals president and Warrnambool’s St Joseph’s Primary School principal Michael Gray said any overhaul would make little difference to the day-to-day running of south-west schools.

In Victoria, parish priests currently have a management role within primary schools, including hiring staff. In practice, Mr Gray said much of the work was already delegated to principals and it was time to make the change.

He said the education world had grown more complex and priests did not always have the training or the time to perform the role.

“Parish priests have a commitment to pastoral care… that’s a big role and very time consuming,” he said.

“Parish priests are very committed to their communities and supporting schools.”

Mr Gray’s comments follow the release of a report commissioned by the principals’ association that recommended a review into school governance. 

“Our thing is looking at how schools should be governed in the future and how best those… structures should look,” Mr Gray said, as well as making them a “great place for young people”.

Mr Gray said under the reform plan, Catholic identity and faith-based learning in schools would not change, but priests would take on more of a ceremonial role for special celebrations and school events.

Mr Gray said parish priests remained an important part of school communities.

“People value and appreciate the parish priest’s role in schools and think it’s significant and important,” he said.

Father John Fitzgerald, the governor of St Joseph’s Primary School, said he had basically delegated authority to Mr Gray and didn’t interfere in the running of the school.

“The principal really runs the school,” he said.

“The bottom line is we want schools to be run as best they can.” Father Fitzgerald said the change would have little impact on a school’s operations.

“For the day to day running of it this makes no difference,” he said.

“We want to make sure that we’re looking after the children in the best possible way.”

Away from the south-west, the report highlighted several anonymous examples of priest interference, including principals being forbidden from calling tradespeople and a parish priest ordering a school captain be replaced with another child. 

School reform plan for region

The governing body for Catholic education in the region says an overhaul of the region’s parish primary schools is under way.

Catholic Education Office Ballarat director Audrey Brown said the organisation had been working on redefining how school governance looked across the parish primary schools within the Ballarat diocese. 

"Rigorous research and planning is currently being undertaken to design a governance model for parish schools that will serve them well into the future and that will not be burdensome for current governors and which frees priests for the increasing demands of their pastoral ministry," she said.

"There is an openness among priests, principals, office leaders and parents for this work.

“Many elements of governance are already delegated to the director of Catholic education, so that complex matters of compliance can be monitored and supported professionally and consistently.”

Ms Brown said the roles and expectations for principals, for priests who govern schools and for the Catholic Education Office were clearly defined.

"Where a parish priest does not have the skills needed or is too stretched in his ministry to pay close attention to school governance, he delegates these responsibilities through a memorandum of understanding," Ms Brown said.

“As a Catholic education community, priests, principals and Catholic Education Office staff in the Diocese of Ballarat have a deep commitment to approaching school governance in the spirit of co-responsibility. 

“Clergy and lay people share this work because we understand the importance of having the right people and the right skills in service of our whole education community.” 

In Sale, the diocese has already set up a new company and board of directors that will oversee the employment of staff and the management of school properties. The board will report to Bishop Patrick O’Regan.

In a letter to clergy, teachers and principals, he said the new model would let priests focus on the pastoral and spiritual aspects of schools and parishes “without having to deal with complex management and legislative compliance issues”.

“It will also alleviate them of the responsibility and personal legal liability in relation to the management of schools,” he wrote.

Other dioceses are now considering following suit, as they digest the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

In its long list of recommendations, the royal commission said the bishop of each diocese should ensure parish priests are not the employers of principals and teachers.

Priest says change is common sense

CHANGE: St Joseph's parish priest Father John Fitzgerald says priests are ordained to provide pastoral care. Picture: Rob Gunstone

CHANGE: St Joseph's parish priest Father John Fitzgerald says priests are ordained to provide pastoral care. Picture: Rob Gunstone

A Warrnambool Catholic Church leader says priests are not ordained to run schools and says it’s always good to review leadership structures.

Father John Fitzgerald said there had been discussions, particularly in the past two years, through the Ballarat Diocesan School Advisory Council looking at the governance of parish schools.

He said if the governance role of priests in schools was removed it would mean they had more time to dedicate to pastoral care.

“That’s what priests are trained for,” he said.

“Many are not trained to run schools.”

Fr Fitzgerald said schools needed to be accountable to all industrial and legal requirements and also the state and federal governments.

“We want to be as supportive as we can to Catholic Schools,” he said.

“The governance of schools has changed enormously in the last few years.

“Governance of schools needs really qualified people.

“To me it’s common sense.

“We know that Sale (Diocese) has moved that way.

“It’s an enormously sensible approach. Things have changed over the years.

“The principal really runs the school. It’s always a good thing to review the structure from time to time.

“Priests are not ordained to run schools. And schools have become very, very complex especially with complicated issues.”

Leader agrees with reviews

St Patrick's Primary School Koroit principal Mark Moloney.

St Patrick's Primary School Koroit principal Mark Moloney.

St Patrick's Koroit principal Mark Moloney says the current system has served Warrnambool and district well for "years and years", but it is time for change. 

"Schools now operate in a different environment," he said.

"That's as far as accountability and reporting goes. 

“The current model of school governance isn't really fit for schools of the 21st century." ​

​Mr Moloney said the current model sometimes put ​parish priests as canonical administrator of multiple schools. 

"So for the old parish with one school and one priest - it no longer applies,” he said. 

Father Bill (van de Camp) is the canonical administrator of both Koroit and Port Fairy. That is to satisfy the requirements of canon law.

"The practicalities are now that with less parish priests and higher demands for accountability and reporting for all schools that the current model is now really not fit for purpose."