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Bid to end Catholic schools rift

Melbourne's Archbishop Denis Hart is taking the unprecedented step of creating a committee to deal with a "growing power struggle" between priests and principals in Catholic schools, according to a report in The Age today.

The paper says the move follows a rise in the number of disputes between the two parties, some so serious that principals have taken stress leave or parents have removed their children from a school.

The conflict was reported in The Age in November when the independent teachers union and several school sources cited cases where priests had threatened to sack staff, had thrown out resources, or overrode decisions on classes and curriculum.

Priests in Victoria are the legal operators of Catholic primary schools and regional secondary schools, while principals manage the schools' daily business.

Archbishop Hart stepped in to address the issue last month after the Victorian Independent Education Union wrote, asking him to intervene.

According to the union's general secretary, Tony Keenan, conflicts between priests and principals had become the single biggest issue the union has had to deal with on behalf of school staff, with more than 40 disputes in the past two years.

Catholic Education Office director Susan Pascoe (pictured) said the process would streamline the way to deal with problems. Disputes now are either directed to her office, or to the union.

"I think in any situation it's good to have a dispute-resolution process because what we've been doing at the moment is deal with them on a case-by-case basis," she said.

But she disagreed that there had been an increase in the number of conflicts, saying she knew of less than a handful of cases.

Melbourne's Vicar-General, Monsignor Les Tomlinson, had said earlier that such conflicts were uncommon.

School leaders have welcomed the push towards a new dispute-resolution process. "I think it will be helpful," said Gerald Bain-King, acting principal at St Joseph's Regional College. "Any process that the archbishop puts in place that fosters successful relationships is a good thing."

Bid to end Catholic schools rift (The Age 23/3/04)

Melbourne Archbishop to step in on schools (CathNews 15/12/03)
Teachers union complaining to archbishop about interfering priests (CathNews 28/11/03)
Catholic Education Office
Archdiocese of Melbourne
Victorian Independent Education Union

23 Mar 2004