News Analysis

How a school’s ‘mafia’ culture enabled abuse

Ealing abbey

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which has been running since 2014, is gradually assembling the most detailed picture yet of how British institutions have provided sanctuary for sexual predators. IICSA’s scope takes in not just the Catholic Church, but also the Church of England, local government, residential schools, children’s homes and young offender institutes, among others. But from a Catholic perspective, its most sickening findings are those concerning young children in the care of priests and monks who were supposed to have dedicated their lives to God.

The report’s most recent findings concern the Benedictines at Ealing Abbey and its attached day school, St Benedict’s. Since 2003, two monks and two lay teachers have been convicted of serial abuse, and IICSA believes there is much more that has not yet come out. A culture of secrecy surrounded the abuse, thanks to the power wielded by the abusers. As the IICSA report says, “A particularly startling aspect of the sexual abuse perpetrated at the school was that very senior figures at the school or abbey were abusers.”

David Pearce, a monk who was convicted of serial abuse in 2009, had been head of the junior school; Lawrence Soper, known to have abused at least 10 children between 1972 and 1983, rose to become prior and then abbot. His position allowed him to create a climate of fear: one boy reported abuse to a teacher, who felt unable to act because the school “felt a bit like a mafia”. Only when Soper had left his position did the teacher sound the alarm.

IICSA criticises many institutions and individuals – abbots, headmasters, the Diocese of Westminster’s child protection team, the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the Charity Commission – for failing in various ways to prevent or respond to abuse at St Benedict’s. The most disturbing question, nevertheless, is how a culture of abuse, protected by a “mafia” culture, carried on for so long within a Catholic institution.