Saturday, 28 January 2012
The following is the text of an article I wrote that has been published in this week's edition of The Tablet.
One man's blog has highlighted complaints of abuse at St Benedict's School, Ealing, and what he believes are the monks' shortcomings in addressing them. But here the author of the blog identifies potential difficulties with protecting the vulnerable at all independent schools .
The abuse that happened at the schools run by the abbeys of Ealing, west London, and Downside in Somerset is unacceptable and the long coverup that occurred even more so. At Ealing, eight monks and teachers have had credible accusations of child abuse against them: one of these, Fr David Pearce, is in prison after abusing a pupil in 2007 and another - a former abbot, Fr Laurence Soper - has gone missing after failing to keep an appointment with police to discuss abuse allegations against him. At Downside, complaints against seven monks have been made public, among them Fr Richard White, a teacher who was jailed earlier this month for abusing two pupils in the 1980s.
To put it bluntly, successive abbots at both locations harboured criminals who they knew or should have known had committed sex crimes against the children in their care. It is a Catholic mess, and it is a Catholic responsibility to clear it up. It is urgent to learn the lessons of Ealing and Downside and apply those lessons to all Catholic schools.
Unfortunately, Lord Carlile’s report on how pupils of St Benedict's can be better protected in future is of little help. Apart from repeating recommendations already made by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) and a previous independent review, his only real proposal is for a change of governance so that the school is run by a separate trust with a larger board of trustees from a variety of backgrounds under a lay chairman.
At Ealing Abbey the senior monks are currently both trustees and beneficiaries of a charitable trust responsible for monastery, school and parish. The arrangements at Downside are similar. This is not a healthy state of affairs. Even with the best will in the world, the monks will tend to prioritise their own interests above those of the other beneficiaries.
Lord Carlile's proposal is a good idea on general principles, but it is not a magic bullet. It is not just schools run by monks or even just Catholic independent schools which can have trouble with sexual abuse. There have been cases of abuses covered up by independent secular schools as well.
Carlile assigned primary blame to the abusers themselves. This is true, but provides no guidance as to how to combat a career paedophile in an occupation where he gains trusted access to many potential victims. Outwardly, abusers cannot be distinguished from the many honest and hardworking priests, teachers and youth workers. It can take children a long time to report abuse, so by the time something is noticed there might already be a serious problem in the school.
At this point, school authorities (Catholic or otherwise) face a dilemma. Independent schools are, in effect, businesses. They compete with each other for pupils and the fee income they generate. An independent school's reputation is a key asset. The governors have arguably conflicting duties to protect the children and to maintain the reputation of the school.
It's easy for management to believe that these conflicting duties can be reconciled. This is where things can go horribly wrong. Management might delude itself into thinking that an allegation is mistaken, malicious or trivial, or assume that a member of staff has been so frightened by an allegation that he won't abuse again, and so decide that the children can be protected without reporting the incident to the authorities. Once one incident has been covered up, management is compromised and it's hard not to do the same next time, lest the previous bad decision also come to light. The cumulative effect of this can be decades of unhindered abuse.
Schools must prioritise child protection, and so must without exception make a commitment to report promptly in writing every allegation and incident of abuse to the Local Authority Designated Officer for Child Protection (LADO).
There is a major gap in the SI Benedict's policy which Lord Carlile apparently hasn't noticed. Paragraph 30(c) requires that the school "satisfy the wishes of the complainant's parents". This is dangerous because the wishes of the parents can be manipulated. It would be easy for a head teacher to say, ''Your child has had a bad experience. We don't want to make it worse by having lots of strangers ask him questions about it.” How many parents in such difficult circumstances would have the knowledge and force of personality to insist that the authorities be contacted against the recommendation of the head teacher?
The Downside policy also has a serious weakness. It promises (with exceptions) only to "consult" the LADO, not to report all allegations in writing.
It is vitally important that it be made unthinkable to hide abuse. A commitment to report all allegations was recommended in the 2001 Nolan report. It is hugely disappointing that two schools at the centre of sex-abuse scandals seem still not to have got this basic point right.
Parents should review the safeguarding policies of their children's schools. If there is no commitment on reporting, or if it looks like the school has given itself wriggle-room by allowing exceptions, or the policy is just hard to follow, then the school needs to make improvements.
It would be wrong to assume that Ofsted or ISI have checked a school's policy. ISI inspected St Benedict's in November 2009 (a month after Fr David Pearce was sentenced) and found nothing wrong, even though the policy did not meet regulations. In any case, they can only insist that the school meets statutory requirements, and unbelievably there isn't a statutory requirement on schools to report allegations or even a known crime of child abuse to the LADO.
A strong safeguarding policy deters abusers. By contrast, a weak policy which avoids committing to immediate reporting is an open invitation to abusers to try their luck. Once one abuser has been protected, others will know they also can operate with impunity.
This isn't just about the monks of Ealing and Downside. In my view, separating the governance of either school from its abbey won't magically remove the temptation to cover up abuse. What happened there might happen anywhere. It is up to us all to make sure it doesn't by checking the safeguarding policies of their local school and parishes. Safeguarding is everybody's business.
• Jonathan West is the parent of a former pupil at St Benedict's School and the author of a blog, Confessions of a Skeptic.