Opinion & Features

Downside has faced the truth

Downside Abbey: a cultural shift (Getty)

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.

Other abusers were allowed – possibly still are – to reside at Downside, within a few hundred yards of the school. Christian forgiveness is paramount, but St Benedict warns abbots that when a monk commits a grave offence, “one diseased sheep may infect the whole flock”. It may seem severe, but in my opinion those who pose any risk to children should not live next-door to a boarding school, no matter how many locked doors separate them.

School governance, as I have argued before in these pages, is key to the future. The school and abbey still remain tied up in one, single charitable trust. Its trustees, without exception, are monks. Although there’s a separate school governing body which includes lay members, it is chaired by the abbot (or prior administrator). And ultimately, it has no power over the trustees – it’s purely advisory.

It was this exact set-up that Lord Carlile, in his report into St Benedict’s Ealing seven years ago, called “wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable”. The London abbey and school, after appalling cases of abuse, were split into two separate trusts, allowing for clearer accountability and greater control for lay staff.

Similarly, at Ampleforth, there is a separate trust for the school that since 2010 has had more lay trustees than monks. At the inquiry, Ampleforth said this was an “important reform in emphasising the fact that the abbey does not control the school and seeks instead to work in close partnership with lay people”. It doesn’t mean that Ampleforth is no longer Benedictine.

Was it the failure of the monks to follow suit that led Downside’s first lay headmaster, the highly regarded Dr James Whitehead, to leave this autumn? Certainly he was critical of Downside’s governance at the inquiry.

Either way, I can reveal that there is now a plan to reform the school’s governance. “Senior school staff are working on a new School Development Plan, which should provide the basis on which a new School Trust can be built,” says Downside. They don’t want to rush it and they seek “to establish real and effective separation, rather than a quick fix”. The school will have to be “financially independent”. This is, at long last, very encouraging news.

There are many brilliant members of staff, including monks, at Downside – and hundreds of happy pupils in their care. Serious past mistakes have now been recognised and apologised for. There has, as one witness told the inquiry, been a cultural shift on safeguarding there in recent years. Another outside expert, an experienced child protection police officer, said Downside is ahead of the game in some respects that would make it “the envy of other schools”. Current school parents should now feel confident that their children are in a safe school, as well as a special one, even if further improvements are still possible. A forthcoming independent review of safeguarding at Downside should offer direction in this area.

But it is nevertheless right now for the monks – whose judgment on child protection has, at times, been impaired by the ties of loyalty that bind monastic communities – to hand on the baton and give executive and financial control to a fully independent lay staff. The staff should then be allowed to communicate frankly and freely to parents. This should not be a cause for shame, but celebrated as the start of an important new chapter in Downside’s 400-year history. The father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, said that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”. This reform is one that will conserve Downside and ensure it can flourish in the future.

Will Heaven is managing editor of The Spectator