By: Jonathan West 

Ampleforth and Downside Abbeys are Benedictine monasteries, each with a boarding school attached. Last November and December the IICSA heard harrowing testimony from former pupils of both schools, describing both physical and sexual abuse that they suffered. The dates ranged from the 1950s to the 2000s.

But more sickening even than the accounts of the abuse was the way in which we learned that it was covered up. When one monk, Richard White, was found to have abused, rather than report it, the Abbot of Downside checked with the school solicitor to see if he had to report it. The reply (legally quite correct) was no. White’s crimes weren’t discovered for another 20 years, when the police stumbled across details in school records while conducting an unrelated investigation into abuse by another monk. White was sentenced to five years.

Successive abbots, former abbots and monk-headmasters were required to give evidence to the inquiry, and to a man they struggled to justify what was clearly a well-established and settled policy to keep such matters out of the hands of the police. It is also quite clear that they were intelligent men who knew precisely what they were doing and who knew how to remain just inside the law while conducting the cover-up.
Various lay Catholics also gave evidence, people wo had been employed by the Catholic church to reform its safeguarding and ensure the safety of children in the care of the church. These professionals all in effect said the same thing, that safeguarding in the Roman Catholic Church was essentially unreformable, that it was not reasonable to expect significant improvements to come from voluntary efforts by the church to improve its handling of safeguarding and that any improvements would therefore have to be the result of legal pressure from outside.

Eileen Shearer spoke of the barriers to effective working, which clearly remained by the time she resigned as Director of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults (COPCA).

“Priority seemed to be given, often, too often, to protecting the institution from open scandal and to dealing with things in-house, a mistrust of the statutory authorities, and there seemed to be a lack of awareness of their own lack of knowledge in a way, so that they were not open to accepting advice or receiving training and development.

There is often reference in the evidence that I have read about the fact that the child protection policies nationally were not mandatory, which was not the intention, I believe, of Lord Nolan, and also that they might draft their own local policies.”

Adrian Child, Eileen Shearer’s successor as head of COPCA and its successor the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS) was even stronger.

“If I could just, I suppose, add to that that I think the Catholic Church has had two excellent opportunities, through Nolan and Cumberlege, to get safeguarding right on a kind of, as I said, goodwill, internal basis, and whilst I think there’s been a huge amount of effort by a lot of people, a lot of very good people, within the church, and I include some bishops and religious leaders in that, they haven’t got it right, and that’s in a 15-year period. So I don’t see any value in tinkering around the edges and saying, “Here you are. Here is a third opportunity. Go away and sort this out yourself”, […] I think there needs to be accountability and some kind of mandatory enforcement.”

Dr James Whitehead, the outgoing headmaster of Downside School made a similar point

“Accountability is the fundamental problem. The members of the monastic community are not accountable unless they commit a criminal offence, obviously. But they are not accountable to anybody. They can go back and retreat to the abbey and, you know, after this, they will go back and enjoy their Christmas celebrations and not worry, fundamentally, about the impact, necessarily. There will be some bad PR for a while, potentially, but their livelihoods are never going to be at stake. They are going to go back and live in their grade I or grade II listed building and enjoy that for the future. So the issue of accountability is a real one.
I think the points that have been made in terms of the mandatory reporting I think are good ones, and I think the testimony that was given yesterday, arguing perhaps for a body which oversees more accountability within this area, I think I would fully support.”

Jane Dziadulewicz, former safeguarding co-ordinator for the diocese of Clifton raised the same point and made the same recommendation.

“I think there is a huge problem around accountability, and this problem — the problem within the Catholic Church has been going on for years. I think, unless a way can be found to ensure that bishops and religious leaders have no choice but to apply policies and procedures, we will continue to have problems in managing individuals accused of abuse and in keeping children safe within the Catholic Church.

“I think perhaps there needs to be some kind of body that holds the church accountable, which could result in financial fines or criminal sanctions if these policies and procedures aren’t applied, in the similar way by — across other agencies. There is just nothing. The church ultimately doesn’t have to do these things if it doesn’t want to.
“Once this inquiry is over, if nothing happens as a result of this inquiry, the church can continue in the way it’s continued for years, and so people can — will be able to access the services that the church has offered to children and families for years and the same problems will arise where offenders will be able to target children and abuse again.”

These opinions are not coming from enemies of the church. They are from people who have genuinely tried to reform the church’s safeguarding policies and culture, and who have concluded that reform from within is impossible. They were there, they have seen the task, and have done their best but have failed.

The inquiry has therefore heard overwhelming evidence that we have an institution here where those in charge knew perfectly well how to report abuse to the police, but made a deliberate decision not to, instead choosing over a period of decades to harbour known criminals in their midst.
The legal representatives of the abuser survivors were unanimous in calling for the inquiry to recognise the need for “mandatory reporting”, a legal duty on staff in institutions caring for children to report reasonable suspicions of abuse.

It is hard to imagine any measure short of legal compulsion under threat of substantial criminal penalties that will change the behaviour of those who know how to report abuse but who instead carefully skirt just inside the law to keep the abuse covered up. The monks giving evidence were quite clear that had a mandatory reporting law existed they would have obeyed it and reported the abuse.

But the amazing thing is that none of these quotes have made it into the inquiry report. The past misdeeds of the monks of Ampleforth and Downside are rehearsed in great detail, and the fact that significant problems remain at both schools is mentioned. But the report doesn’t mention anywhere that backsliding is possible and has been specifically warned against by expert witnesses who have tried to get safeguarding to work within the church. Instead the inquiry was full of praise for individuals such that the outgoing and next headmasters of Downside who appear determined to improve things.

The inquiry report says that it is holding off making recommendations until it has completed the Roman Catholic investigation. On the surface that is fair enough, but the lack of any mention of the risk of backsliding combined with the praise for individuals working to improve things makes me wonder whether the inquiry is going to argue against the need for mandatory reporting.

Such a course of action would be disastrous. Reliance on the presence of good people doing the right thing fails as soon as those good people (when all the publicity has died down) are blocked from getting on with the job and resign in frustration. Not having mandatory reporting essentially tells places like Ampleforth and Downside that what they did was OK legally and in due course they can go back to covering up abuse in time-honoured fashion. Do we really want that?

Jonathan West is a core participant in the IICSA investigation into the Roman Catholic Church.