Outgoing Labor Senator Louise Pratt has used one of her final parliamentary speeches to call for the abolition of the school chaplaincy program, saying it is harming vulnerable gay and lesbian children.
Senator Pratt said a survey found anti-gay chaplains had driven schoolchildren to self-harm and had told them to “pray the gay away”, claims rejected by chaplaincy groups.
The High Court will on Thursday rule whether the $245 million chaplaincy program, and a raft of other government programs, is constitutionally valid.
In a speech to the Senate on Tuesday night, Senator Pratt, who lost her seat at the April Western Australian Senate re-run, said: “I know some great chaplains – they work with love and authenticity, doing wonderful things for our young people. But on a national level we must face the fact that our chaplaincy program is failing Australian young people.”
Senator Pratt said an online survey by gay rights group All Out, which attracted 2200 responses, had uncovered dozens of firsthand student accounts that describe chaplains as being “explicitly anti-gay”.
One respondent said their school chaplain had described gays and lesbians as “unnatural, indecent and perverse”. Another said a gay friend had overdosed on medical pills after their school chaplain said being gay was a “degrading sin” that sends people to hell.
“As well as the two stories I have just quoted, students described chaplains helping them to ‘pray the gay away’ and advising them to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to ‘correct’ their same-sex attraction,” Senator Pratt said.
“One very serious story involved a student being told by a chaplain that they should leave home because they had homosexual parents . . . Regardless of the outcome [of the High Court challenge], it is important to see this program stopped.”
Peter James, convenor of the National School Chaplaincy Association, said Senator Pratt’s speech was a “disappointing speech filled with all sorts of inaccurate data and information.
“Chaplains are supportive and non-judgmental and the ones that are not are in breach of their code of conduct”.
Mr James said all chaplains are trained and any who proselytise – including against gay or lesbian students – face disciplinary action.
He said the survey quoted by Senator Pratt was self-selecting, not scientific and claims of widespread proselytising did not reflect Department of Education figures.
The department received 34 complaints about the program in 2013, down from 93 in 2011. Sixty per cent of the claims were not substantiated.
The Abbott government renewed the program for another five years in May but altered it so that schools cannot hire secular welfare workers – a change introduced by Labor in 2011.
Senator Pratt lost her Senate seat after being relegated to number two on Labor’s ticket behind Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association state secretary Joe Bullock.
Mr Bullock was widely criticised for saying in a leaked speech that Senator Pratt – whose husband is transgender – is “a lesbian I think, although after her partner’s sex change I can’t be sure”.
For help or information call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251 or Lifeline on 131 114, or visit beyondblue.org.au.