Monday, 26 April 2010

Letter to the Catholic Herald

The Catholic Herald last week had as its lead story Archbishop Nichols takes legal advice over newspaper's 'unwarranted slur'.

I wrote a Letter to the Editor pointing out that abuse at St. Benedict's School has been going on for decades, and that it is a strange sense of priorities which has Archbishop Vincent Nichols asking for legal advice as to whether he has been defamed by the Times when most of the duration of Father David Pearce's paedophile career at Ealing Abbey has not been the subject of any review or investigation by the church.

Of course, the Catholic Herald didn't publish the letter!

Here is the letter in full.


Sir - With regard to the crimes committed by Father David Pearce at St. Benedict's School and Ealing Abbey, most of the press attention has concentrated on the fact that Pearce managed to assault his last victim while on a restricted ministry. Far more important is that Pearce was able to sexually abuse pupils at the school unhindered during the previous 35 years. Pearce pleaded guilty in 2009 to sexual and indecent assaults on a range of dates from 1972 to 2007. Pearce's nickname "Gay Dave" was widely known amongst the pupils over several decades, as was the danger of being alone in a room with him. It is inconceivable that the adults running the school never learned anything of this.

Another former teacher, John Maestri, has also been convicted three times of sexual assaults on boys at the school. He was sentenced on the first of those occasions to 2½ years in prison, and has been placed on the Sex Offenders Register for an indefinite period. It would appear that the child protection procedures at the school entirely failed to pick up on Maestri, since the convictions occurred some 20 years after he left the school.

Therefore, this is a far greater issue than merely a failure to supervise Pearce properly once he had been placed on a restricted ministry. We have a situation where two now-convicted paedophiles were able to operate at the school over a period of decades. So far, this wider failure appears not to have been investigated at all, and so it is very unlikely that any lessons have yet been learned from these tragic events. In the circumstances, it is entirely possible that abuses by others could also have occurred at the school so far undetected, and that further abuses could still happen there in the future.

On the "Sunday" programme on BBC R4 on April 11th, Abbot Martin Shipperlee suggested that everything had been done correctly according to the guidelines, while Eileen Shearer (COPCA's first director) said that "the system is only as good as those who operate it", perhaps implicitly suggesting that the Abbot was incompetent in implementing the guidelines. Since Pearce was able to continue abusing, either the guidelines weren't adequate, or they weren't correctly followed, or both.

Even today, the school's current published child protection procedures are well short of the CSAS recommendations. For instance, reporting of allegations is only carried out under "proper circumstances", a phrase left undefined and therefore in effect left to the unlimited discretion of the school, and even the definition of "sexual abuse" depends on a subjective assessment of the extent to which the child is aware of the nature of the activities.

It is urgently necessary that a detailed investigation be conducted to see what can be learned from this case over its whole duration of more than 30 years, to reduce the chance of such failures happening again either at St. Benedict's School or elsewhere. In addition, the school's child protection procedures need to be externally reviewed and updated to come into line with best practice, including the mandatory reporting of all allegations and suspicions of abuse to the Local Authority Designated Officer, who then has the responsibility for deciding whether the matter requires further investigation.

It would seem to me that the placing of a priest on restricted ministry in response to child abuse allegations is hardly an everyday occurrence, and I find it extraordinary that the board of COPCA would not be informed when such an event occurs. I also find it extraordinary that COPCA would not also get directly involved in reviewing the arrangements for supervising a priest on restricted ministry when he continues to live next door to a school! However, accepting Archbishop Vincent Nichols' assurance that this is so, this is another area which the review should examine, to see whether COPCA's successor organisations NCSC and CSAS should have a coordinating role in supervising restricted ministries and other similar arrangements, to ensure that best practice in safeguarding is implemented across the country.

Since the events occurred during Archbishop Vincent Nichols' time as chairman of COPCA, this is a failure that occurred on his watch, even accepting that he had no personal involvement in the case. It seems to be a strange sense of priorities for effort to be expended on considering whether the Archbishop has been defamed by The Times while the underlying issues of the case remain uninvestigated. He can hardly be unaware of the extent of the failures now, so there really is no excuse for a full investigation not to be undertaken immediately.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Talking to victims of sexual abuse

A commenter on my previous article has made the following point.
If you have strong evidence that several monks have been involved in abuse, you should pass this to police without delay. Also, if you have received allegations, you must encourage those concerned to go to police. You are in danger of prejudicing prosecution if you carry out an unofficial investigation.

If you have evidence that there are 'hundreds of abuse victims' at St Benedicts' you should contact the police immediately.
It's a serious question and it deserves a serious answer.

Of course, I have spoken to the police. I have told them that from time to time I receive emails from victims talking about their abuse. The detective I spoke to was happy with the approach that I take, which is to provide such support and encouragement as I can to persuade the victim to come forward voluntarily to make a statement, but not to forward correspondence without permission.

As I understand it, if the victim is unwilling to make a statement to police and is unprepared ultimately to speak in court, then any email sent privately to me by a victim is useless for the purpose of a prosecution.

So, I treat correspondence as confidential unless and until the victim is prepared either for me to contact somebody on his behalf or to make that contact himself.

It is not easy for victims to come forward. There is a considerable overhang of guilt and shame involved, which remains even though the adult rational part of their mind recognises that there is nothing for them to feel guilty about. That is why victims can often take 30 years or more to summon the courage to come forward. When dealing with child sex abuse and its effects, all ideas of what we think of as logical thought-processes count for very little, and the guilt doesn't go away just because the rational part of your mind decides that it should. This is because the experiences occurred before your adult rational mind was fully formed.

The victims have an experience of the adult world betraying their trust. I have no moral right to betray that trust all over again.

By the way, I'm not carrying out my own investigation. I can't barge into the Abbey and demand to see all its books and correspondence. I'm calling for the Church to carry out its investigation. My aim is to ensure that procedures are put in place to prevent abuse in the future. I hope you would agree that is a good idea. In order to know what must be prevented in the future, it is necessary to acquire a realistic perception of the nature and extent of the abuse in the past, even though relatively few cases might ultimately end in prosecution.

So let's have a think about what that realistic perception consists of. Given the range of dates on which Pearce committed crimes he was convicted of, it is reasonable to infer that he has been an active paedophile for pretty much the whole of the 40 years or so that he was resident at the Abbey. Moreover, we have dozens of accounts of abuse here in comments on this blog, most of them from people who have not yet come forward to the police, or at least hadn't at the time they wrote.

Given the difficulty in coming forward in the first place, and the active work in suppressing complaints which we can infer from the comment by "Paul", it is entirely unrealistic to think that anything but an extremely small proportion of Pearce's crimes have come to trial. But nonetheless, based on what we do know, we can make a conservative estimate of perhaps 3 boys a year whom he abused. That's perhaps 120 boys.

Then there is Maestri. He was at the school for something like 12 years. Chalk him up for an estimate of another 3 a year. That's another 36.

Then there are others about whom comments have been made. Even supposing they between them only account for 50 or so, that puts us over 200 in total. Hundreds is a vague but entirely reasonable estimate. It is the sort of figure indicated by the evidence we have so far. You might choose to make a different estimate. But don't think in terms of saying that since Pearce has only been convicted of abusing 5 boys that this is the total extent of his crimes. That's just wishful thinking, hoping that the problem will go away. I don't expect that Pearce or anybody else will get convicted of hundreds of counts of child abuse, unless I am vastly underestimating the extent of his crimes and they actually number in the thousands. But there isn't evidence to suggest that.

So, if you are former pupil at St. Benedict's School and are a victim of Pearce or anybody else, and feel that the time has come to share the burden you have carried for so long, I have these words for you.

You are not alone. Others have also suffered as you have. You have friends in the world who wish you well and want to help, even though you might never actually meet them.

If you wish, I can put you in touch with other victims of abuse who are willing to share their experiences, so you can compare notes and talk with somebody who really understands in a way I can't, not having been abused myself.

If you wish, I can help you contact the appropriate people within the police. I am assured that you will be taken seriously. The police have specialist units which specialise in child sex abuse, they understand what it takes to talk to them.

If you wish, I can help you find professional assistance which I hope might bring some healing to your life.

Or if all you feel able to do is take the step of privately contacting me in confidence, then I will hear you and take you seriously. Whether and when you take the matter any further is for you to decide, based on your strength and welfare and that of your family. You don't have to take all the decisions at once. Believe me, I have a good idea of how brave you have had to be even to have looked up this page and read down this far.

Unless and until you decide to take it further our correspondence will be confidential. I know what a massive step it is for a victim to confide in anybody at all, even 30 or 40 years after the event.

Naturally I hope that you will in due course feel able to contact the police, but I know enough about the effects of sexual abuse on children to realise what a gigantic step it is even to contemplate this. I will think no less of you if you decide that for now or for ever you feel unable to do so. The great majority of victims never manage it. There is no shame in being part of that majority. But tackling lesser hurdles first can help, for instance talking privately to somebody you decide you can trust. That's a big enough first step by itself. Other steps can be left for another day.

If you wish, you can email me at Or you may decide that talking to a sympathetic member of your family would be better. Or a trusted friend. You do what you think is best for you.

If you read this but don't feel able to make any approach, know that the door will remain open, and you can choose to walk through it some other time.

Requesting an enquiry at Ealing Abbey

Here is an abridged version of an email I sent yesterday to Archbishop Vincent Nichols.


Dear Archbishop

I welcome in particular the following part of today's Statement by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales

"In our dioceses we will continue to make every effort, working with our safeguarding commissions, to identify any further steps we can take, especially concerning the care of those who have suffered abuse, including anyone yet to come forward with their account of their painful and wounded past. We are committed to continuing the work of safeguarding, and are determined to maintain openness and transparency, in close co-operation with the statutory authorities in our countries."

In pursuit of that specific aim, I request that you institute as soon as possible a wide-ranging enquiry into child sex abuse at Ealing Abbey and St. Benedict's School. There is strong evidence that there has been abuse at the school, involving several monks, priests and lay teachers, extending over decades.

Such reviews as have taken place at Ealing Abbey so far appear to have concentrated solely upon the failure to effectively supervise Father David Pearce once it had been determined that he was a danger to children and had been placed on a restricted ministry. However, as you are aware, Pearce was convicted of sexual and indecent assaults over a 36 year period, and John Maestri, a lay teacher, has been convicted three times of sexual crimes against pupils of St. Benedict's School during his time as teacher there in the 1970s and 1980s. As far as I am aware, no enquiries have yet addressed this longer timescale, why Pearce and others were not detected and stopped sooner, what is the full extent of the abuse that went on there, and who else may have been involved.

My son attended St Benedicts Junior School for two years, when Pearce was Junior School Headteacher. Fortunately for both my son and for me, he was not among Pearce's victims. But as a result I have taken a close interest in the case. Through my blog, a large number of victims have come forward with accounts of abuse by a number of monks and teachers.

Several victims have contacted me privately. I am treating their correspondence as confidential so I shall provide no individual details. But they all tell a very similar story of lives blighted, a loss of respect for adult authority, confusion about their sexuality, destructive and even psychotic behaviour, broken families and difficulty in forming adult relationships. I am doing what I can to offer support to them, by assuring them that they were in no way responsible for the abuses committed against them, and encouraging them to seek the help they need to rebuild their shattered lives and to contact the police to report the crimes against them.

The scandal of St. Benedict's School is not limited to those priests and teachers who actually committed sexual assaults on children. It appears that there was an active effort to silence victims and cover up abuse.

The victims of abuse at St. Benedict's School quite probably number hundreds, only a small proportion of whom have ever come forward. Those who have the strength to report their abuse deserve to have their story heard by a properly run enquiry, which will establish the truth of the matter as far as possible and make recommendations for improvements at the Abbey and the School.

Even after the Pearce and Maestri cases, the school's published child protection policies still fall far below best practice and do not conform to the CSAS guidelines. They are so bad that even the definition of "sexual abuse" depends on a subjective assessment of the extent to which the child involved has an understanding of the activities he is being subjected to. I have raised this matter both the Abbot and the Headmaster, to no effect.

In my opinion there is an imminent, continuing and serious risk of further sexual abuses committed against children at St. Benedict's School. An enquiry is urgently needed in order to prevent future abuse.

The Bishops' apology

Well, this is a bit of a welcome change. From last week when the Catholic Herald's lead headline announced that Archbishop Nichols takes legal advice over newspaper's 'unwarranted slur', the Bishops of England and Wales have issued a statement apologising for the abuse.

Let us be fair, while in some respects it is less than it should be, there are several welcome and positive things in the statement. Here are a few of the high points.
Our first thoughts are for all who have suffered from the horror of these crimes, which inflict such severe and lasting wounds. They are uppermost in our prayer. The distress we feel at what has happened is nothing in comparison with the suffering of those who have been abused.
That is welcome. In the past, the apologies from the church have tended to conflate the suffering of the victims with that of the church itself, as if there were some equivalence between them. This rightly makes it clear that such comparisons are odious.
The criminal offences committed by some priests and religious are a profound scandal. They bring deep shame to the whole church.
A statement of the obvious, but not something we have heard quite so directly before. We progress.
We express our heartfelt apology and deep sorrow to those who have suffered abuse, those who have felt ignored, disbelieved or betrayed. We ask their pardon, and the pardon of God for these terrible deeds done in our midst. There can be no excuses.
The Bishops seem to have suffered from another acute attack of passive voice. Even now, they seem to find it difficult to find a form of words which makes it clear that abuses don't just happen, they are committed by abusers. But at least they are not offering excuses and are saying there can be none. So, two cheers for this.
Furthermore, we recognise the failings of some Bishops and Religious leaders in handling these matters. These, too, are aspects of this tragedy which we deeply regret and for which we apologise. The procedures now in place in our countries highlight what should have been done straightaway in the past. Full co-operation with statutory bodies is essential.
Oh dear. They still can't bear to bring themselves to utter the word "cover-up". They are still being entirely unspecific as to what the "failings of some Bishops and Religious leaders" have actually consisted of.

Any organisation which has responsibilities for the care and welfare of children will attract its share of paedophiles. Therefore, from time to time, abuses will happen. Whether the priesthood has a few more paedophiles or a few less than comparable occupations such teaching is neither here nor there. What matters is the institutional handling of this. What is required is really very simple to describe, and not all that hard to implement.
  • There has to be culture of awareness, so that the honest non-paedophiles know what to look out for, and how to report it.
  • There need to be clear procedures for reporting abuse
  • There need to be clear procedures for handling complaints, including where necessary temporarily removing the subject of a complaint from contact with children while an investigation is undertaken.
  • There need to be clear procedures for rapidly removing abusers from contact with children.
The overall aim is to keep known dangers away from children in the first place, to detect any instances of abuse quickly, and to stop them immediately.

The true scandal of the Catholic Church is not that it has some paedophiles within the clergy, it is that the Church's institutional response could hardly have caused more harm over a longer duration to the maximum number of victims had it been designed with that specific aim in mind.
Now, we believe, is a time for deep prayer of reparation and atonement.
Many, perhaps even most of the victims are no longer Catholics or even believers of any kind. Their faith has been shattered by the betrayal of trust inflicted on them by their clergy. You can pray if you wish to, but I doubt that many of the victims will be in the least bit impressed by this. It is unfortunate that this is the first response the Bishops list. When discussing the Pope's apology about the scandal, I mentioned that there was a bit of Father Ted about this.

This is how Father Ted and his fellow priests would address the problem.

"The whole institutional response of the church to sexual abuse has been shown to be corrupt and ineffective. What shall we do?"
"I know! Let's say Mass."
In our dioceses we will continue to make every effort, working with our safeguarding commissions, to identify any further steps we can take, especially concerning the care of those who have suffered abuse, including anyone yet to come forward with their account of their painful and wounded past. We are committed to continuing the work of safeguarding, and are determined to maintain openness and transparency, in close co-operation with the statutory authorities in our countries.
This is very good - if the Bishops live up to it. There is a lot of work still to do. Because of the shame and guilt involved, it can take victims decades before they summon the courage to come forward. There are probably 30 years of abuse stories still to come out.

I've written to the Archbishop asking him to make a start by setting up an enquiry into the goings-on at Ealing Abbey these past few decades. I'll publish that letter in the next article.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

A correction

A friend of Pearce's last victim at the Abbey has contacted me, and has passed on the following:
Pearce's last victim confided in the Child protection officer of the School, and did not go to the police, it was then from this meeting, that the Abbot and necessary child protection officers where then contacted. So when you say that the school's procedures contributed nothing, this is false, also the abuse did not happen in the school.
I'm grateful to him for passing on this detail. I was previously genuinely under the impression that a complaint had been made directly by the victim to the police.

The friend went on to say that the latest publicity in the Times and elsewhere has caused the victim some distress. I would like to say that I intend no distress towards him and genuinely wish him well. I have not provided any details about him in the blog beyond that which is already in the public domain, and have no intention of changing that. There are two reasons for that.

First, at Pearce's sentencing hearing, I was advised by the police that reporting restrictions have been imposed by the court protecting the anonymity of victims. I have every intention of abiding by that.

Second, I apply the same principle to all the victims at St Benedict's School, of abuse by Pearce or anybody else. They deserve their privacy as far as it can possibly be maintained. For instance, there are some incidents I know of which I will not describe here, because even to describe them including no names would enable anybody with even a passing familiarity with the school to identify the victims.

Some publicity is going to be necessary if sufficient pressure is ever going to be applied to get the school to properly improve its child protection procedures to the point there the chance is minimised of there being future victim. If it was going to be achieved without pressure, the Abbot would have done it by now.

Through the victim's friend I have invited the victim to contact me confidentially to see how this can be done while minimising any distress he suffers.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Times and Ealing Abbey

There are several articles about Father David Pearce and the events at Ealing Abbey and St. Benedict's School in today's Times. The Catholic boy abused by Father David Pearce whose life fell apart, Britain’s top Catholic ‘protected’ paedophile, and Catholic Church’s bluster over child abuse puts its good work at risk.

If you who have come here as a result of seeing one or other of the articles there, I would like to welcome you. If you have a connection with the school or the Abbey, you are especially welcome to comment here about your experiences.

If you want to see what I have written here on the subject in the past, this link will take you to a list of all my Ealing Abbey articles. Some of those articles have a large number of comments below them. If you were at the school, you may well recognise some of your school contemporaries among those who have left comments.

I have been in touch with some of Father David's victims, both as as a result of people commenting here on the blog and people contacting me privately. If you are a victim and want to tell your story to somebody, but don't feel able to do so in public in a comment here, you can email me at Anything you write privately will be treated in strictest confidence for as long as you wish.

My aim in writing about St. Benedict's as I have is quite simple. My son was at the junior school for a couple of years while Pearce was Junior School Headmaster, and could so easily have been one of his victims. The fact that he wasn't is the sheerest good fortune for me and my son - it is certainly not down to any merit or caution on my part against such a threat. It simply didn't occur to me at the time that this was something I needed to be on guard against.

More recently, I had followed the various abuse scandals in America and Ireland, and had noticed that they didn't seem to stem from a single exceptionally bad character, but rather were the result of a failure to respond appropriately to reports of problems. There seemed to be nothing unusual about any of the places where it happened, so I wondered somewhat idly whether I would hear of any cases in the UK.

So I was very shocked, but not all that surprised, when quite by chance I happened to read in the papers last August the story of Father David Pearce's conviction. That brought it a bit too close to home. That meant that I almost certainly knew victims or at least the families of victims.

Nobody else at St. Benedict's School should have to suffer the same kind of abuse. To that end, I am applying such pressure as I can to ensure that the school's child protection procedures are improved. At the moment, they are still a sorry mess, and I have written to the Abbot pointing this out. Also, I wish to provide whatever support and comfort is within my power for past victims of sexual abuse at the school - caused by Father David or anybody else. It is only too easy for these abuses to go unchecked if everybody just looks the other way and assumes that somebody else will deal with it. So I've decided that I will not look the other way.

But I can't do it all myself. If you feel able to join me in taking action in support of these aims, please send me an email. Much more can be achieved with people acting in concert. If you are concerned about abuse at the school, either past, present or future, then we can help each other.

If you are a parent of a pupil presently at the school, then I recommend that you read my article Chosen, written a few months ago. In it you will find a link to a BAFTA award winning documentary of that name, produced by three former pupils of Caldicot School. Caldicot School is a private boarding school, (with no Catholic connection) and the three participants in the film, now all in middle age, describe their experiences of being groomed and then abused by teachers at the school. The details of the sexual crimes committed against them differ in some details, but the techniques used to groom the victims are exactly the same as was described in court at Father David's sentencing hearing in October. You can view the film online via the link given in the article. You may find parts of it distressing.

If you are a parent, you need also to be aware that there is no statutory obligation to report allegations or suspicions of sexual abuse to the authorities. You are dependent on the school choosing to, and at present the school's Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy leaves it to the discretion of the school whether a case is of sufficient seriousness to justify a report.

I am perfectly well aware that sexual abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church or its schools. Any job which involves contact with and supervision of children will attract its share of paedophiles. The protection of children means that schools and other organisations caring for children need to have policies and procedures in place which ensure as far as humanly possible that abuse is prevented, and that any abuse that happens is detected early and stopped immediately.

The policies and procedures of St. Benedict's School and Ealing Abbey completely failed to do this. Father David Pearce abused pupils at the school in a paedophile career that spanned 36 years, and he was brought to justice as a result of a pupil making a complaint directly to the police. The school's procedures contributed nothing to the process. I doubt very much that the procedures have been improved to the point that any new paedophile at the school would be quickly detected.

I have no time for anti-Catholic abuse or discrimination. So far, the comments on previous articles have remained remarkably free of anything like that. I would like it to stay that way, and I will delete any comments I consider to be abusive. I want this blog to be somewhere where victims and others concerned about the issue can feel safe contributing to the discussion.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

What the Pope should have said

One of the comments to my post about the pope's apology asked what I think should have been said instead. That's a fair enough question. But let's clarify first what the situation is which requires the apology.

This issue is really simple. Any organisation responsible for the care of children will attract its share of paedophiles. The Catholic Church is no exception. Therefore, the staff of the organisation have to be on their guard against this, and ensure as far as humanly possible that:
  • abuse is prevented in the first place
  • it is detected quickly when it happens,
  • any abuser discovered is quickly and permanently removed from a position where he can continue to do harm.
The issue is not that a few priests are paedophiles - human nature being what it is, that is only to be expected.

The true scandal of the Catholic Church is that its institutional response could hardly have been better at maximising the harm to children and the number of victims had it been deliberately designed with that end in mind. The issue is one of incompetence and cover-up on a breathtaking scale by non-paedophiles in senior positions to whom these matters were reported.

What is required is equally simple.
  1. The church must openly, publicly and sincerely apologise for the harm it has done in failing to bring an end to the activities of paedophile priests then they were discovered. No weasel words, no euphemisms, no use of passive voice. No nitpicking distinctions between paedophilia and ephebophilia (sexual attraction to post-pubescent children of the same sex). No putting all the blame on the paedophile priests themselves. And absolutely no complaints about how the church is suffering in all this, as if the church was the victim. To make such a comparison is an insult to those who are the real victims in this - the children whom the church has abused.

  2. Insofar as it hasn't already been done, the church must put in place robust and effective child protection measures, and that assistance from secular child protection experts must be sought in order to ensure that the church's procedures are as good as those of any secular organisation. The procedures must involve the mandatory reporting of all allegations and suspicions of sexual abuse to the civil authorities. Failure to do so must result in severe disciplinary sanctions.

  3. Worldwide, every diocese shall conduct enquiries to ascertain the scope of past abuse. These enquiries shall be conducted by experts external to the diocese, and the diocese shall open all records not confidential under the seal of confession. The reports shall be published in full, except that the names and other identifying details of victims shall be omitted to preserve their privacy and anonymity.

  4. Measures must be put in place for the support and assistance of victims of sexual or other abuse by clergy and members of religious orders.

  5. Every bishop, archbishop or cardinal or other senior churchman who participated in a decision to return a paedophile priest to duties which gave the priest further opportunity to abuse children, must resign from his post. If not past retirement age he should embark on a ministry of reconciliation as a simple parish priest.
In brief, the Catholic Church and its senior clergy must atone for their sins in exactly the same way that they expect of everybody else.

A pastoral letter that made this apology and promised these actions is what in my view should have happened. If the Pope had said all this, and said what was going to be done to fulfil the promises, then it would probably improve public opinion quite radically overnight.