24 October 2014, The Tablet

Tattoos are no reason for a Catholic school to exclude someone

Charlotte Tumilty, a 26-year-old mother of two sent home on her first day as a teaching assistant at a Catholic school in Hartlepool because of her tattoos, is exactly the sort of young person the Church should embrace.

At my most adorned, I had 14 piercings and five tattoos. No-one at my supposedly conservative church in Oxford batted an eyelid when I came back from university covered in metal – although one priest did joke about his fear we’d get tangled up (I had five lip rings) when he gave me Communion.

I loved the fact that my church – like, to their credit, my family – didn’t care what I looked like. So I can only imagine how Ms Tumilty felt when a member of staff at the school in Hartlepool allegedly told her “it's a strictly Catholic school and tattoos are forbidden”, despite Miss Tumilty's best efforts to cover them up.

The Church needn’t be anti-tattoo. Times have changed, and they no longer indicate prison-time. Even Samantha Cameron, the Prime Minister’s wife, has one. To me Ms Tumilty’s beautiful tattoos beg so many questions. Who is “Ben”, on her right wrist? What do the cute icons – a raincloud, a bow, a heart and a diamond – on her fingers mean?

Maybe because I’m tattooed I see ink like Charlotte’s and I want to know more about her. I know every picture has a story, and she obviously has a lot of stories. One of these claiming that she made or was somehow complicit in making indecent images of herself has been splashed across the media. They were dug up to fit the tired narrative that tattoos equate to trouble and angst. They don’t: these days they equate to words, pictures, prayers and symbols you never want to be separated from.

It’s a shame that a Catholic school could be about to turn its back on a young woman who has apparently weathered such difficult storms and come out stronger and more colourful, with dreams and ambitions. What a great inspiration for the young people she would encounter.

Now that school has fresh allegations to weigh against her. We’re told to look beyond the skin-deep. I think Charlotte’s beautiful, narrative skin is exactly where they should look for reasons to invite her back.

Above: The author, with tattoos Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

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Comment by: Deacon Paul
Posted: 27/10/2014 21:10:58

It's a sad and difficult issue.
Obviously many children will have parents, relatives and older siblings who may have tattoos and body piercings, so it is important that we don’t send messages that these somehow make people so different that we should shun them. However children are naturally inquisitive so it is easy to realise that they will want to ask questions; “why are you covered in tattoos?”, “why that particular tattoo?”, “what does that tattoo mean?” Then children go home and ask “Mum, can I have a tattoo?”
There will also be parent (many quoted in the press) saying “why did you let her into the school?” or “I don’t want my children exposed to this”.
The reality is that, in the short term, the teaching assistant becomes the subject of the class attention, rather than the main subject being taught. The arguments in favour of Charlotte say “what if she had been in a wheelchair? or “what if she had alopecia?”
As a church we need to not exclude unnecessarily, but we also need to be ready to handle novel circumstances and allow children to realise that difference does not make people wrong. Mutilating the body does actually contradict our beliefs but we also need to accept that people need to develop a sense of personal identity which, in our mono-culture, means some will make what the mainstream see as extraordinary choices.

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