“Opus Dei provide a chaplain, who is a priest of Opus Dei who provides chaplaincy services [to the school], and that’s where the relationship ends,” said Richard Vella, the spokesperson for Opus Dei in Australia. The chaplains’ involvement at school includes leading mass, confession or offering students spiritual guidance.
Mr Vella said parents who sent their children to its schools “may be” Opus Dei members but “any overlap would be a personal interest in [Opus Dei’s] message”. “The Opus Dei message is simple and has a very wide appeal: work, family life, and the events of each day present an opportunity for becoming close to Christ and making him known,” he said. “That’s a very basic common message about Christianity.”
Former students who attended Redfield and Tangara throughout the 2000s and 2010s and who spoke to the Herald said the portion of their peers with some sort of connection to Opus Dei ranged between a quarter and half of the school population, but they were not the majority. For those who were connected to Opus Dei, normally their parents were “supernumeraries”, or married members.
They said the schools were also more ethnically diverse than people would think, noting a number of Filipino and Middle Eastern families choose the schools, very few with Opus Dei connections. According to MySchool data, just under a third of students come from a non-English speaking background.
Parents who have children at the schools say they are drawn to the strong sense of community, advocacy of parental involvement and support for family relationships. Tangara and Redfield also run a unique one-on-one mentoring program, where each child meets with a staff member once a fortnight to check on their academic, social and moral development. Parents are invited into that process once a term.
The schools’ proponents point out the mentoring program – as well as comparatively lower private school fees relative to HSC results – are an attractive prospect to families who may not be devout. Fees reach $9700 for year 6 and $17,300 for year 12; Tangara’s HSC scores ranked 25th in the state last year.
But many students will also attend after-school or holiday study camps operated by the not-for-profit Education Development Association, an organisation founded by Opus Dei members whose first operation was UNSW’s conservative Catholic Warrane college in the 1960s. (The Premier’s brother, Alex Perrottet, is dean of Warrane).
Mr Vella said the study centres, which include separate sites for men and women at Pennant Hills, had a “closer” relationship with Opus Dei than the schools, with members living on-site.
But he said any relationship between the study centres and the schools – which sometimes advertise the study centres and camps in their newsletters – “comes from a personal affiliation”.
“Definitely, the operations are different,” Mr Vella said.
However, others said the majority of school staff were at times involved with the study centre and that the Opus Dei numeraries, who are celibate members, had a presence at the school.
“The lines between the religious order of Opus Dei and the school are intentionally blurred,” a former student who graduated from Tangara in the late 2000s said. She requested anonymity because her family members are involved with the community.
“Your science teacher can be a numerary, and you can go from class with her, to being driven to [Opus Dei women’s study centre] Eremeran by her, for her to then deliver a ‘circle’ with reflection on religious passages and prayer before she helps you with your science homework.”
Another student who attended at the same time said that although her family was not in Opus Dei and attendance at PARED schools did not “automatically” make someone a member, she would describe Tangara as an Opus Dei school and students who showed an interest in the faith could be encouraged by teachers who were numeraries to join.
Mr Mullins, Redfield’s longest-serving headmaster, accepted religion was “very integrated” in the school. “To me, it doesn’t make sense if religion is just some formality that you stick in a corner, I think it needs to be integrated into your life in some way,” he said.
“And I think it has to be personal. I think that’s what attracts people to the school because they have those values in their family. There is so much emphasis on character and personal responsibility. If a person doesn’t like that, that’s fine, no one’s sitting in judgment. But many people like it, that’s why they send their kids there. The school is an initiative of parents; that’s the way it works.”
Dr Mullins said his tenure at the school – between 1996 and 2010 – emphasised service and civil life. He would take students on excursions to NSW Parliament House and often invite politicians, business people and families to speak.
He said those speakers included former Labor premier Bob Carr, NSW Liberal Party president Phillip Ruddock, Labor politician Tony Burke and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“Johno Johnson, the [former] Labor president of the Legislative Council, he would always tell our students: ‘join the political party of your choice’. It was a real mantra he put in front of them.”
Dr Mullins said Mr Perrottet and his peers would have been exposed to that message. “We’re seeking to give kids the best preparation for adult life and responsibility for what’s going on in our world as part of that,” he said.
PARED students have had a significant presence in university student politics, producing Conservative Club presidents and Young Liberal candidates.
In a 2020 interview with the NSW Young Liberals, which Mr Perrottet once led, he said he loved university politics “above everything else” as a student. His younger brother Jean Claude, who attended Warrane, is the Young Liberals’ secretary.
Dr Mullins said he was “very proud of Dom”, who was elected school captain by his peers despite only attending Redfield in years 11 and 12. “He was an outstanding school captain and I have been delighted to see what a capable leader he is in society.”
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