What future for Benedictine schools after a damning abuse report?

Downside and Ampleforth: even these beautiful names are evocative. They summon up a past of Benedictine monks serving Christ in community, and at the same time educating Catholic boys in the Faith. These schools played their part in the Second Spring of 19th-century Catholicism, and in educating future politicians, artists and, indeed, monks.

But now those two words have another, very different resonance, one amplified by last week’s report from the Inquiry into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The details are unbearable. Ten individuals at Ampleforth and Downside – mostly monks – have been convicted or cautioned for offences of child pornography or “sexual activity with a large number of children”. But IICSA believes the scale of abuse was “considerably higher”.

It gets worse – the report is online if you can bear it. And the shock is compounded by the report’s terse conclusions about the monks’ response. “The overriding concern in both Ampleforth and Downside,” the report says, was to avoid contact with the local authority or the police at all costs, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged abuse.”

Fr Nicholas White, a geography teacher at Downside in the mid-to-late 1980s, was known to abuse pupils. After one boy’s father complained to the then abbot, John Roberts, he was told: “I will sort it out.” The response was to move the child out of Fr White’s geography class. Later, the priest became his housemaster.

The boy told the inquiry: “I don’t think Fr Nicholas was a bad man. I think this was a man desperately struggling with demons, to use a sort of Catholic terminology. I think there was tremendous naivety on the behalf of the authorities, the belief in the power of redemption.”

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