Catholic education head calls teaching consent “amoral and potentially harmful”

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

The head of Catholic Education Tasmania has criticised consent education as stipulated in the national curriculum, saying it includes “highly sensitive, amoral and potentially harmful information”.

But a consent education specialist is pushing back, saying that “the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse made it very clear that teaching children their right to bodily autonomy is critical in preventing childhood sexual abuse”.

Body Safety Australia CEO Deanne Carson told EducationDaily that, “if Dr Gaskin was familiar with the curriculum, he would know that young children are taught consent from a non-sexual perspective”.

“This is how they navigate wrestling with friends, tickles from older siblings, or hugs from grandparents,” she says.

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An update to the health and physical education learning area in the new version of the Australian Curriculum is at the heart of the debate, with a spokesperson for the federal education department saying it aimed “to strengthen and lift expectations for the delivery of consent and respectful relationships education from Foundation to Year 10 in age-appropriate ways”.

The updated curriculum, which is for government and non-government schools, will be implemented by states and territories according to their own timelines. Schools have some degree of flexibility when it comes to teaching the curriculum, and the department spokesperson says that “in many cases, decisions are made by individual schools which ensures that school leaders, teachers, and communities can tailor education programs and resources to suit students’ specific needs and their school’s context”.

In the case of the Catholic Education Tasmania head Dr Gerard Gaskin, a recently published article on the Archdiocese of Hobart’s website reveals his opinion that “consent is proposed as the only standard we should use to judge whether a sexual act is right or wrong, legal or illegal”.

“In Catholic morality, consent is necessary, but not sufficient, to make the sexual act right or wrong. It is the long-held teaching of Christ that sexual activity is only legitimately expressed within the loving relationship between husband and wife,” Dr Gaskin wrote.

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His article also stated that it was “difficult to imagine how such complex and bewildering sexual information could possibly be taught to little children in any way that could ever be considered as age appropriate”.

Dr Gaskin said the “sexual and moral formation” of a child was the “exclusive right of parents” and claimed that the federal and state governments’ decision that this information must now be provided by teachers “places an unreasonable and unacceptable demand on our teachers”.

“Needless to say, Catholic Education Tasmania reserves the right to question and challenge any educational prescriptions that would impose such an anti-family and secular ideology on our schools, students and families,” he said.

Teaching Consent author Jane Gilmore wants to see consent education shared with all Australian schoolchildren.

“This is deliberate scaremongering. Consent education for little children is about hugs and sharing toys. It keeps them safe and prepares them for a lifetime of valuing their own safety,” she told EducationDaily. “While most parents want this for their children, many parents need and ask for support in this space. And the sad truth is that there are some parents who cannot teach their children the things they need to stay safe. We have a social and moral obligation to children to make sure the community provides what parents cannot.”

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At Body Safety Australia, Ms Carson agrees.

“Consent education helps students examine their values about sex and relationship. They are more likely to have their first sexual experience later, it’s more likely to be a wanted experience and they are better able to speak up if they feel uncomfortable,” she told EducationDaily.

Teaching respectful relationships can save lives

In October 2022, the Queensland government announced it had revamped the way sexual consent and respectful relationships is taught in schools. Tasmanian government schools have been teaching the latest version of the Australian curriculum since the start of 2023.

An education department spokesperson said it would continue to provide professional learning opportunities to staff to support the delivery of respectful relationships and consent education.

“The Department for Education, Children and Young People is committed to embedding respectful relationships and consent education in Tasmanian government schools to build healthy and respectful relationships, and to address the attitudes and behaviours that lead to gender-based and family violence.”

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The spokesperson also said the department would continue to share respectful relationships and consent education resources with non-government schools but said non-government schools had “discretion” when it came to implementing the curriculum.

Ignorance can lead to bigger problems

Consent education, Ms Gilmore says, does not prevent religious schools teaching their values to students.

“It just ensures that children and young people are also given the tools they need to understand that any sexual activity – kissing, touching, even holding hands – must be consensual,” she told EducationDaily. “No matter how much parents and schools might want young people to practice abstinence, the evidence says it just doesn’t work and is far more likely to lead to unwanted sexual activity and unplanned pregnancy. Consent education helps young people protect themselves and each other. Keeping young people ignorant will never keep them safe.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live