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Top Catholic schools ‘prioritised reputations of monks over child safety’, says damning report

Ampleforth Abbey in 2016

Children as young as seven at Ampleforth and 11 at Downside were subjected to appalling sexual abuse, the latest report from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse has said.

The inquiry found that the two leading British Benedictine schools “prioritised the monks and their own reputations over the protection of children” amid a “culture of acceptance of abusive behaviour”.

“For decades Ampleforth and Downside tried to avoid giving any information about child sexual abuse to police and social services,” inquiry chair Professor Alexis Jay said.

“Instead, monks in both institutions were very often secretive, evasive and suspicious of anyone outside the English Benedictine Congregation.

“Safeguarding children was less important than the reputation of the Church and the wellbeing of the abusive monks.

“Even after new procedures were introduced in 2001, when monks gave the appearance of co-operation and trust, their approach could be summarised as a ‘tell them nothing’ attitude.”

The report added that the scale of abuse at the two schools over the past 40 years is likely to be “considerably” higher than the number of convictions suggests.

Ten individuals, mainly monks, have been convicted or cautioned in relation to sexual activity or pornography offences involving a “large number of children”. Another alleged offender at Ampleforth abused at least 11 children between eight and 12 over a “sustained period of time,” but died before police could investigate.

The allegations encompass a “wide spectrum of physical abuse, much of which had sadistic and sexual overtones”.

“Many perpetrators did not hide their sexual interests from the children,” the report found. “The blatant openness of these activities demonstrates there was a culture of acceptance of abusive behaviour.”

The Nolan Report in 2001 recommended that all sexual abuse allegations within the Church should be passed on to the police, however Ampleforth and Downside allegedly felt this was “neither obligatory nor desirable”.

The report said: “For much of the time under consideration by the inquiry, the overriding concern in both Ampleforth and Downside was to avoid contact with the local authority or the police at all costs, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged abuse or actual knowledge of its occurrence.

“Rather than refer a suspected perpetrator to the police, in several instances the abbots in both places would confine the individual to the abbey or transfer him and the known risk to a parish or other locations.”

The report concluded that there must now be a strict separation between the governance of the abbeys and schools in order to implement the required safeguarding changes.

Fr Christopher Jamison, Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation, said: “I welcome the publication of IICSA’s report into Ampleforth and Downside and I will continue to work with the Inquiry as it progresses its vital work.

“Once again I apologise unequivocally to all those who were abused by any person connected with our abbeys and schools. The report highlights how flawed many of our past responses have been.

“We continue to work conscientiously to ensure our communities are safe environments for young people both now and in the future.”

Ampleforth College said in a statement: “We remain completely focused on the safety and wellbeing of those entrusted to our care and our commitment to implement meaningful change.

“We are in the process of developing our first ever Safeguarding Charter with Emma Moody of Womble, Bond and Dickinson, a nationally renowned specialist in charity law, education and expert in safeguarding.

“It is our goal that this charter is shared with other organisations and becomes recognised as best practice for safeguarding in education.

“We would also like to once again offer our heartfelt apology to anyone who suffered abuse while in the care of our schools, parishes or other ministries.”

The Catholic Herald has contacted Downside for comment.