Downside can emerge renewed from this crisis

Downside School, in Somerset, is run by Benedictines

When the Benedictines settled at Downside in 1814 they had little more than a farmhouse to move into. It was a bold step: they had been chased out of northern France by revolutionaries in 1795 and there was no guarantee that the people of Somerset would be any more welcoming to Catholics.

At Downside today the old farmhouse remains. But it is dwarfed by an enormous school and a magnificent neo-Gothic abbey. So what happened in the intervening two centuries? The answer is that the monks of Downside earned the trust of generations of Catholic parents who sent their sons to receive a Benedictine education. Downside grew rapidly until, about 100 years ago, it began to rival England’s oldest public schools.

There is no question about it: Downside School is still flourishing. A few years ago, I wrote in this newspaper about its “second spring”, which occurred after 2005 when it allowed girls to join. I noted that the school was livelier and noisier than before and was at its capacity of 430 pupils.

Alas, Downside – as a community – is now experiencing an unexpectedly harsh winter. As friends of the school will know, the Catholic sex abuse scandal recently arrived, like the angel of death, at the door. It did not pass over. One Downside monk, Fr Nicholas White, was imprisoned for five years on January 3 for child sex abuse dating from the late 1980s. Two monks have received police cautions, one a former headmaster for “abuse of a vulnerable person” during the 1980s; two more have been confined to the monastery (with the approval of the appropriate authorities) for “founded” allegations about the early 1990s. Another Downside monk has received a “police warning”, and one more was subjected to a police investigation that concluded without any action being taken.

We are talking, then, of at least six cases where Downside monks have acted improperly or criminally. In the worst case, White was allowed to teach at the school after his actions were discovered. He went on to commit further abuse. (The Abbot of Downside, Dom Aidan Bellenger, has said that the police and press were aware at the time of the first accusations but that the victims’ parents and the police did not proceed to prosecution.) Shockingly, White was allowed to live at the monastery under restrictions from 1999 to 2010, which was a grave error. There is no such thing as a “safe” paedophile living on the site of a school, as St Benedict’s School in Ealing, west London, learned in the case of Fr David Pearce.

The Abbot has expressed deep regret for all of this. “We are truly sorry that children and young people have been abused by those whom they should have been able to trust,” he wrote on January 14 to parents, friends, and former pupils.

The Abbot also noted the recent results of an Ofsted inspection, which concluded that “robust risk assessments are in place to ensure the safety of pupils from adults who should not have unsupervised access to children” and that “the school has made good progress and now meets all the national minimum standards for boarding schools”. He finished his email by saying that, by any measure, Downside “is now a safe, happy and thriving school”.

That may be true, but how can the community as a whole recover from such a major blow to its reputation? This is a crucial question because the school is Downside’s keystone. First, I think that the monks must be utterly candid with parents, without whose trust the school will founder. There must be no obfuscation and no cause for future accusations of cover-up (all school inspection reports from the last five years should be easy to find on the Downside website).

The following three questions are just some of those that must be answered publicly. Are the two monks still living in the monastery under restrictions fit to be in close proximity to the school? Is there anyone else working in the monastery who should be sent away? And do Downside parents know everything they ought to about monks who are still involved with the school?

Answers to such questions must be more than assurances about “outside authorities” and state-approved procedures. This is no time for lawyer-speak. Instead, the answers must fully satisfy Downside parents, and of course the consciences of the Abbot and the headmaster, Dom Leo Maidlow Davis.

It cannot be easy choosing to expel a member of one’s own community. But as the monks will know better than I do, even the Rule of St Benedict allows for this in extreme cases, when the abbot is told to “employ the surgeon’s knife” and be wary that “one diseased sheep may infect the whole flock”.

To the Abbot’s credit, his recent email was written in a spirit of transparency.

But there is one area where openness is lacking: the school’s governance. On the Downside website there is a list of governors, and a note that they are “agents of the trustees”. But there is no mention at all of who the trustees are – six monks and the Abbot, as it happens.

Lord Carlile, who reported on child abuse at St Benedict’s, concluded that the same form of governance at the London day school was “wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable”. He also wrote that “a more modern form of governance, in which the senior teaching management of the school were not effectively under the total control of the abbey” would have helped detect and prevent abuse.

The Liberal Democrat peer’s solution was that an educational charity, separate from the monastery, should be established for the school at St Benedict’s, and that its governing body should a) be diverse, b) not be led by the abbot and c) have a lay majority. The “twin charity” model used by Worth is similar, but the governors of that school’s charity are appointed and led by the abbot.

Whichever model Downside chooses (it’s exploring the options) it is clear to me that the governors must be much more than lay advisers to the monks; they must be able to govern. Furthermore, a number of the governors should be appointed by someone other than the abbot, which would provide real outside authority. Perhaps Highgate School in London could provide a model. It has 12 governors, five of whom are nominated by the Lord Chief Justice, the Bishop of London and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Radical change can be an alarming prospect. But it won’t be the first time that the monks have embraced it. They boldly moved to Somerset in 1814, built a great public school and accepted girls in 2005 all for the same reason: so that Downside could be a beacon of Benedictine education. The right reforms now will ensure it stays that way.

Will Heaven is assistant comment editor of The Daily Telegraph