Those who think that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is too big to succeed should have paid more attention to its hearings on England’s leading Benedictine schools, Downside and Ampleforth.
As an old boy of Downside – one with very happy memories of the place – I was taken aback by some of what the inquiry unearthed. I was impressed, however, by the thoroughness of the proceedings: here were the laymen and monks who educated me for five years until 2005 facing cross-examination for days on end. It can’t have been easy for them, but it was worth it.
We heard, for example, a historical case of a monk who was discovered having downloaded child pornography on a school computer in 1997. He was removed from the school, where he was a housemaster. But in the early 2000s he was appointed the monastery’s novice master, in charge of the welfare of young monks. Was that a wise decision? Evidently not. Later on, the monk was sent to prison.
We learnt that a former headmaster (whom I believe to be a genuinely holy man) took several wheelbarrows of teachers’ files dating back to the 1980s to a corner of the grounds and burnt them in around 2012, simply to tidy up a messy basement. He doesn’t know precisely what was in them. Oh dear. Certainly that news, widely reported, distracted from his sincere apologies to the victims of abuse and a promise to listen to them with “the ear of the heart”, as the 6th-century Rule of St Benedict puts it.
Even the vast majority of us who were well looked after at Downside – I was awarded a generous music scholarship, thrived and made lifelong friends at the school – must face up to a dismal truth. Cases of child abuse, alleged or proven, were handled very badly there. For years, problems were hushed up, known abusers were quietly moved on, and some were even later reintroduced to the school.
While I was a pupil in the early 2000s, a monk who had sexually abused a much younger disabled woman was allowed free rein in his interactions with pupils, gaining, as the inquiry heard, a “guru-like status” among them. According to his victim, at least one other monk knew what he had done.
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