Heavy-handed child protection is eroding trust in Catholic schools

Students can apparently no longer enter Downside Abbey without being accompanied by an adult

A letter in the Telegraph on Monday pulled me up short. Written by Jack Goulder, a pupil at Downside School, it shows what happens when “child protection” – designed to guard children and young people from the possibility of abuse from adults – gets into the hands of petty bureaucrats.

Goulder, who used to regularly visit the Benedictine abbey adjoining the school for coffee and cake on Tuesday mornings, says that a recent Ofsted inspection has forbidden it as it is “a clear breach of child protection”. Apparently a short path between the school and the refectory is now out of bounds for the same reason. Further, “students can no longer enter the abbey church, the centre of spiritual life at Downside, without being accompanied by an adult. So those who wish to attend the Benedictine office or use the church as a sanctuary for prayer during a busy school day cannot do so.”

As Goulder points out, this kind of inflexible and heavy-handed ruling erodes the communal trust that is at the heart of a Catholic boarding school like Downside. When you lose trust, what replaces it? An atmosphere of suspicion. The whole point of a Benedictine boarding school like Downside is to help its pupils grow into a mature faith by being part of a community, including monks, lay teachers and others, where they can learn from the example of dedicated lives. As Goulder comments: “Members of staff, monks, parents and aides to the monastery who were once considered as much a part of the school as the pupils must now be treated with caution.”

This strikes me as very sad. Surely there must be a sensitive way to protect pupils that allows for a measure of common sense and which does not mean endless monitoring and checking? Recently there has been another school scandal: that of Ealing Abbey school where an institutional blind eye was turned for too long on instances of abuse. Such scandals lead to an “overkill” response: we must always ensure that such cases will never happen again. This is an impossible goal. What matters most is avoiding a culture of secrecy where abuse can flourish and having a transparent, clearly defined policy for handling any complaints.

Goulder describes the Ofsted rulings as “Kafka-esque” ie both pettifogging and absurd. Do we want young people to think every adult is a potential predator? Years ago there used to be an advertisement to join the Salesians. It probably featured in the Herald. It showed a picture of St John Bosco, their founder, looking down kindly on a young boy, with the quote from the saint: “It is enough that you are young for me to love you.” Previous Catholic generations, who knew of Don Bosco’s apostolate to the ragged youth of Turin, understood exactly what it meant: that it was the very vulnerability of these poor boys that kindled the fatherly love of the priest (who had lost his own father very young). That advert has naturally vanished; in today’s climate of mistrust its meaning would inevitably be twisted. What sad times we live in.