We knew that our world was surrounded with sin in the most surprising, embarrassing and horrifying places. So when my wife and I decided to send two sons to Downside I told them what they should do if confronted by an obvious evil: go first to your housemaster. If you are not satisfied with the result go to the headmaster; and if still unsatisfied go the abbot. If the matter is still unresolved… well, I didn’t think that far.
Whatever complaints we had, our boys experienced no sexual violation, and the same had been true when I was in the school during the early 1960s. I did not know that much about the life of the monastery. But we were happy to entrust them to the care of monks dedicated to the service of Almighty God who had 1,500 years’ teaching experience behind them.
Alas, this did not work in several ways. I remember being shocked on hearing of one monk who told a mother he would counsel her son who was having difficulty with his faith but failed to speak to the boy. It must be said that monks teaching in the school had an increasingly heavy workload, and their confidence shaken by not having gone through the training demanded by our bureaucratised education establishment.
It seemed they were not listening to mothers, increasingly a key factor in the highly expensive bargain between school and parents. And mothers are suspicious of bullying.
Corporal punishment was already being reduced when I left, but it continued long afterwards.
With our parents’ and grandparents’ memories of the two world wars and the looming possibility of another, fighting between boys seemed to instill some useful toughness and could be rather enjoyable in a dayroom on a wet afternoon. The damage this did to a few boys who were not robust was little noticed; the presence of Christ in every child seemed to be forgotten.
When the Second Vatican Council began in 1962 with the aim of renewing the Church and healing divisions, a tidal wave of confident hope swept through all monastic communities and out into the world.
The faithful were encouraged to examine every aspect of the way we lived as Catholics. But the English Mass, introduced in a series of banal forms, offered little assurance since the new clarity lacked the luminosity in the Tridentine rite.
Pope Paul VI’s reversal of the long expected approval of contraception in Humanae Vitae happened just as the Pill opened the floodgates of the “permissive society”. Politicians quickly learned they would not win votes by saying sex should be restricted to the marriage bed.
But Rome had spoken. The laity rebelled. The Benedictines were expected to support the Vatican, but they were also conscious of a duty to show understanding to married couples who faced a check on their loving relationships, or the prospect of more children than they could afford.
The gush of secular liberalism in the world was accompanied by bitter disagreements in the monasteries. It was often unclear how exactly things were going wrong, except that it probably began in small things.
But some appalling abuses occurring at this time were recently revealed in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) report on Downside and Ampleforth. This was conducted on the internet with all the appearance of a trial. A QC served as lead counsel to the inquiry, while the monks were left to speak honestly but ineffectually for themselves.
The most striking thing to emerge was that a succession of abbots seemed to have forgotten that the Rule of St Benedict gives them considerable powers. While always encouraging his brethren an abbot should also reprove, entreat or rebuke if necessary. He should be prepared to manifest the sternness of a master, not shut his eyes to their failings.
Above all, he should remember his primary duty was to be a moral arbiter, not to be over-ridden by the requirement of protecting his community against criticism: a challenge that has confronted many bodies in the secular world.
Some claim that Downside must be doomed. But all is not lost. The order has faced great crises before, both moral and political. At the Reformation they faced martyrdom for their loyalty to the Faith; at the French Revolution they were forced out of their Continental monasteries to return to their homeland.
What once seemed such formidable issues fade with time – and appropriate action. Already Dom Nicholas Wetz of Belmont Abbey has been appointed Downside’s prior administrator.
Whatever has happened in the past, the spiritual benefits of a school connected with a religious community (however loosely, given modern legislation) is still something many Catholics will seek.
David Twiston Davies is the former chief obituary writer of The Daily Telegraph
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