15 August 2018 | by Catherine Pepinster in THE TABLET
In October 1975 a small item entitled “Bishops’ Move” appeared in the Britain section of The Economist magazine, tipping off readers that the relatively unknown Basil Hume, Abbot of Ampleforth, could well be the next Archbishop of Westminster. The magazine had an inside track: its editor, Andrew Knight, was a former head boy of the monastery’s boarding school, Ampleforth College, while Basil Hume was an already impeccably connected monk.
Hume’s sister, Madeleine, was married to the Cabinet Secretary of the time, Sir John Hunt, and they lived in Wimbledon just round the corner from the papal nuncio, someone whom they knew well. Prominent Catholics, including Miles Norfolk, the seventeenth Duke, joined forces to lobby to get the Abbot of Ampleforth into Archbishop’s House.
Taken together, the fortunes of Knight and Hume indicate how influential and significant a role Ampleforth played, through its monks and former pupils, to create a Catholic ascendancy in public life – once considered impossible given the post-Reformation years out in the cold. This was the moment when, as Hume’s biographer, Anthony Howard, put it, “the patrician, recusant strain in English Catholicism joined forces with the more liberal, intellectual elements within the Church”.
The Benedictine monks of Ampleforth were highly educated men, central to the new Catholic confidence. Their school, dubbed the Catholic Eton, educated the sons of the poshest and most moneyed Catholic families, as well as some of the more artistic. The roll-call of old boys proves the point: as well as Andrew Knight and Basil Hume himself they include Sir Anthony Bamford, head of JCB; former Conservative Party chairman Michael Ancram; sculptor Antony Gormley, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, the current Duke of Norfolk, former England rugby captain Lawrence Dallaglio, the actors James Norton and Rupert Everett, and many more in business, the military, the arts and politics.
In the glory days of the mid-1970s it was hard to imagine that Ampleforth could ever fall from grace. Its only worries appeared to be competing with its Jesuit rival, Stonyhurst, on the other side of the Pennines, to be “top English Catholic school”, and with other Benedictine monasteries – including Downside – for vocations. Downside, in Somerset, was a similarly smart school which turned out establishment figures like Sir John Hunt, Hume’s brother-in-law. It was run, as a former abbot, Dom Charles Fitzgerald-Lombard, observed “on convention, precedent and tradition”.
Forty years on from “Bishops’ Move”, the outlook is very different for both Ampleforth and Downside. In November and December last year the Government-appointed Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) heard evidence regarding abuse at these two schools going back to the 1960s and the 1970s. The evidence was given after the two monasteries and their associated schools had been chosen as case studies for the inquiry’s investigation into institutional failures to protect children from sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
IICSA’s 200-page report was published on 9 August. It makes for devastating reading – and raises major question marks over the future of the Benedictine order in England, the relationship between the monasteries and the schools, and, more broadly, the effectiveness of existing child protection measures in the Catholic Church. It is also likely to challenge the confidence and faith of English Catholics in their leaders and in some of their most prestigious institutions.
The inquiry found that over the course of 40 years there were disturbing incidences of both physical and sexual abuse of children attending the schools run by the monks of Ampleforth and Downside. Some of the abusers were lay teachers but the majority were Benedictine monks who were also ordained priests. The children abused were as young as seven years old. Much of the abuse remained hidden until, first, survivors courageously came forward to tell their traumatic stories and, later, the police made inquiries.
These investigations led to the conviction of several monks, who often turned out to be serial abusers, especially Piers Grant-Ferris (pictured left) and Gregory Carroll at Ampleforth and Richard “Fr Nicholas” White at Downside. The chilling conclusion drawn by the inquiry panel is that the true number of abusers is likely to greatly exceed the 10 men who have so far been convicted. Some of the most serious allegations that were never examined in the courts involve monks who have since died.
The situation at the two schools should not be put down to a few bad apples in each community. The IICSA report shows that the response to the abuse by the monks, and in particular by some abbots, was inadequate. Until recently, safeguarding was not taken seriously, and the reputation of the institutions and the well-being of individual monks was prioritised over the welfare of children.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the report is that it makes clear that when English Catholics were at their most confident and the influence of Ampleforth was at its zenith – the years when Basil Hume was first its abbot, and then led the Catholic Church in England and Wales – was precisely the time when there was something rotten in the North Yorkshire monastery. Boys being educated by its monks – entrusted to them by their parents – were being abused, even raped.
The most notorious of Ampleforth’s criminals was Grant-Ferris, son of a Tory MP, an establishment man who would help turn out future establishment men. Grant-Ferris was a savage disciplinarian who beat boys for the most minor transgression. He sexually abused pupils as well, seeking out the most vulnerable and lonely children. The details of the intimate encounters with boys mentioned in evidence given to IICSA – in their dormitories, in the toilets, in changing rooms and bathrooms – are shocking. There were incidents in confessionals too. Grant-Ferris attacked children aged just seven.
His abuse began soon after he joined the teaching staff at Ampleforth’s prep school, Gilling Castle – now closed – in 1966. At different times, those in authority at Ampleforth were aware of Grant-Ferris’ behaviour but chose not to inform the police. He was convicted in 2006 on 20 counts of abuse.
There was a similar situation with a serial abuser at Downside. In 1986 “Fr Nicholas” White, a geography teacher, abused a boy of 11, taking him into a private area of the monastery out of bounds to pupils and assaulting him. Three times, White was sent away after abusing boys or after allegations had been made, and each time he was allowed to return, once – astonishingly – even being appointed housemaster. The 80 boys in his care included at least one he had abused. It was not until 2011 – 25 years after his first criminal assault – that White was finally arrested and prosecuted for serious offences against several children. Four abbots – John Roberts, Charles Fitzgerald-Lombard, Richard Yeo and Aidan Bellenger – had dealt with White and were aware of his crimes. It took until 2010 before the police were involved.
The predilections of another Downside monk, Desmond “Fr Dunstan” O’Keefe (pictured above), for internet pornography involving young boys was known for years. Eventually O’Keefe was jailed and laicised but it took 13 years from when the school’s IT expert, Malcolm Daniels, first alerted the monks to O’Keefe. The inquiry reported that Daniels had written at the time: “I have to protect the pupils in my care. But it seems to me that all anyone is worried about is him – he who has done these dreadful things.”
The response of several of Ampleforth and Downside’s abbots when they became aware of abuse was not to call the statutory authorities but to deal with the matter “in house”, including moving errant monks to parishes – where there was no way of guaranteeing that they will not have access to children. Nor was it the abbots’ first instinct to contact parents. And if and when they did, it was to attempt to persuade them they could deal with the situation. It tells us something of the power of the Church on devout Catholic parents that they could be so readily persuaded.
The Church’s grip on parents was even evident 20 years later. Another victim of a Downside monk, a teenager, who was vulnerable due to her debilitating medical condition, met one of the Downside monk teachers through her parents. The teacher sexually abused her over a number of years. She told the inquiry that she complained to Cardinal Hume about it and later to Aidan Bellenger, but no report was made to the police or action taken against the monk. She found the situation confusing because the monk concerned was idolised by so many people in the Church, including her parents. The abuser died earlier this year.
But one parent did make more of a fuss. In 1975, according to psychiatrist Dr Seymour Spencer, who had been brought in to advise the monks, he and Abbot Basil Hume and Fr Patrick Barry visited the parents of a boy abused by Grant-Ferris to persuade them that they could handle the situation and there was no need to take the matter up with the civic authorities. Meanwhile, that same year, influential Catholics had begun lobbying Rome and the nuncio to suggest that Basil Hume was the right man to lead English Catholics.
This is not to suggest that Basil Hume was guilty of malevolence but rather that he assumed that he knew best, much as people in positions of influence are so often tempted to do. But in the case of abuse, this meant that abusers were protected and justice was denied to their victims. This approach – that the English Benedictines should police their own bulwarks – lasted for decades.
There was even a lack of willingness to embrace the Catholic Church’s own policies for child safeguarding, the Nolan principles, drawn up in 2001, which made the welfare of children paramount and urged the involvement of the police whenever a credible allegation of abuse was made. Eileen Shearer, the former director of the Church’s child protection office, Copca, said after the report was published that Ampleforth and Downside had “a culture resistant to criticism and implementing Nolan principles. There was a slowness and unwillingness to act.” This was particularly the case with historic cases, which Nolan had advised should be reported to the police. At Downside, when files regarding historic cases were handed over to the police, incriminating details were withheld, and left in brown envelopes in a safe. Other material was burnt on a bonfire.
There have been improvements in safeguarding in recent years, as the IICSA report acknowledges. Senior teachers have training in safeguarding and child protection. The schools are now inspected by the local education authority, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) and Ofsted. Today all religious orders align themselves to a safeguarding office. But there still remains considerable amount of work to be done. Ampleforth has an official warning from the Department for Education hanging over it, requiring it to improve its child protection standards, leadership and management.
The ISI identified that the governance of the monastic schools should be separate from the monasteries – yet this separation has still not been fully implemented at Downside. The monks have now appointed a consultancy firm to help manage the separation. But separating the governance of the school from the monks won’t address the problem of geography: both Downside School and Ampleforth College are close to their respective monasteries. It would be virtually impossible to prevent a monk with paedophile tendencies encountering a child in their vast grounds.
Not that there are so many monks around: Ampleforth’s community now numbers 55, compared to nearly 170 in the 1960s, while Downside, at fewer than 20, doesn’t even have enough monks to have its own abbot; it only has a prior administrator. Pupil numbers are also dwindling, which may be due to the reluctance of today’s parents to send their children to board far from home. Eton, within M25 distance of the homes of London-based bankers, now has substantial numbers of Catholics. Such harrowing stories of abuse will lead to more parents hesitating before coughing up annual fees of around £35,000.
As to broader issues, Richard Scorer, a solicitor who has worked for many years on abuse cases and represented several survivors at the inquiry, believes that mandatory reporting of abuse must become a requirement, saying: “We are not talking about making private individuals snitch on their neighbour but a law that mandates that abuse in institutions must be reported to the local authority designated officer for safeguarding. As to what should be reported and when – that needs to be made clear. But unless it is mandatory, what happened at these two schools could happen again.”
Abbot Richard Yeo told the inquiry that he could not see a common thread in the stories of abuse. Richard Scorer is clear that there is: “There was the common issue of reputational protection which took precedence over the protection of children.” While this happens in secular organisations too, it is particularly true here, and it is bound up with the opinion the Benedictines had of themselves.
Time and again, the report reveals a culture of superiority, arrogance and insularity – something that will require a revolution of the heart to dismantle. The response of Ampleforth, Downside and the English Benedictine Congregation to the report’s publication suggests this culture remains unchanged. All three issued statements of regret and apology; none was willing to face journalists’ questions. An ex cathedra approach, rather than engagement.
The problems go even deeper than the particular culture of the English Benedictines – as far as the sixth-century rule of St Benedict, by which the monks live. Benedict’s rule reflects a patriarchical theology in which belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful God the Father is mirrored in an all-powerful male leader. This gives huge authority to the abbot – an authority which some of them have been unwilling to surrender to the police or social services, or even allow them to challenge their views or decisions. The rule also makes plain the abbot’s responsibility for the welfare of his monks – and the report makes it clear that abbots have on occasion put the protection of monks before the safety of children, something that goes against the Paramountcy Principle of Nolan.
Then there is the rule that monks are bound by life to their monastery. Stability sounds fine in theory, but the report reveals that it has led to abbots being reluctant to send a monk away from his monastery even when he has been involved in abuse in the school on the same site. Benedict urges that particular care should be taken before accepting men who want to become novice monks, insisting it must not be made easy. One of the toughest aspects of religious life is celibacy. One Downside survivor told the inquiry: “Unexpressed sexual tension stalked the corridors of Downside.” In a letter written in 2016 Aidan Bellenger describes “the heart of darkness in the community – the issue of child abuse” and adds: “The deep unhappiness of so many of the community shocked me.”
Scorer, too, believes celibacy is a problem: “I’ve been struck by psychological studies that suggest that once you have crossed the boundary of celibacy, a person does not have the understanding of how to behave.” One theologian suggested the problem went further than celibacy; there was a problem in Catholic teaching on sex. “These monks had been led to believe that only sexual intercourse is sex, and so long as they refrained from that, it wasn’t a sin. So you have all kinds of abuse, but they still avoid heterosexual intercourse. The Church needs to revisit what it teaches.”
Has there also been a misunderstanding of the Church’s teaching on forgiveness and redemption? One victim of White said of the approach of the monks to his abuser: “I think there was tremendous naivety on behalf of the authorities, the belief in the power of redemption.” Gordon Lynch, a professor of theology at the University of Kent, has written extensively of the focus of Christianity on redemption and Christ’s atoning for sins. In a recent paper, “‘To see a sinner repent is a joyful thing’: moral cultures and the sexual abuse of children in the Christian church”, Lynch writes: “Those committing abuse have also been seen as sinners capable of redemption. In many instances, this has led religious authorities to interpret their abusive behaviour as a failing in their spiritual formation requiring some form of intra-institutional response rather than a criminal act requiring intervention from secular agencies the possibility of their redemption … was given higher priority than taking the strongest possible steps to ensure that other children or vulnerable adults would not be abused by them.”
It may well be much harder for English Catholics to forgive Downside and Ampleforth for what has happened, and for their trust – in these schools to educate their children and to keep them safe and to offer spiritual succour and leadership to members of the Church – to ever be restored. Many of those with personal connections to the schools are hurt, betrayed and angry. An Old Gregorian – an old boy of Downside – said: “They won’t get it until they’re hit where it hurts most, when the abbey is sued by the victims. Would I send a boy to Downside now – certainly not. I would recommend that every Downside benefactor and Old Gregorian withhold donations.”
One Catholic who had been baptised and married by Benedictine monks and whose parents and grandparents had been buried by them, said: “I feel betrayed. For years I looked up to many Benedictine monks I knew and even loved. They were undoubtedly kind to me and to many others. But they were leading a double life. My trust has been broken.”
Those bright, shining days when an Ampleforth abbot turned Archbishop of Westminster led a newly confident Catholic community, seem far off indeed.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet and author of The Keys and the Kingdom: The British and the Papacy from John Paul II to Francis.