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Heavy-handed child protection is eroding trust in Catholic schools

Monks and other members of staff at Downside are now being treated with caution

By on Thursday, 17 November 2011

Students can apparently no longer enter Downside Abbey without being accompanied by an adult

Students can apparently no longer enter Downside Abbey without being accompanied by an adult

A letter in the Telegraph on Monday pulled me up short. Written by Jack Goulder, a pupil at Downside School, it shows what happens when “child protection” – designed to guard children and young people from the possibility of abuse from adults – gets into the hands of petty bureaucrats.

Goulder, who used to regularly visit the Benedictine abbey adjoining the school for coffee and cake on Tuesday mornings, says that a recent Ofsted inspection has forbidden it as it is “a clear breach of child protection”. Apparently a short path between the school and the refectory is now out of bounds for the same reason. Further, “students can no longer enter the abbey church, the centre of spiritual life at Downside, without being accompanied by an adult. So those who wish to attend the Benedictine office or use the church as a sanctuary for prayer during a busy school day cannot do so.”

As Goulder points out, this kind of inflexible and heavy-handed ruling erodes the communal trust that is at the heart of a Catholic boarding school like Downside. When you lose trust, what replaces it? An atmosphere of suspicion. The whole point of a Benedictine boarding school like Downside is to help its pupils grow into a mature faith by being part of a community, including monks, lay teachers and others, where they can learn from the example of dedicated lives. As Goulder comments: “Members of staff, monks, parents and aides to the monastery who were once considered as much a part of the school as the pupils must now be treated with caution.”

This strikes me as very sad. Surely there must be a sensitive way to protect pupils that allows for a measure of common sense and which does not mean endless monitoring and checking? Recently there has been another school scandal: that of Ealing Abbey school where an institutional blind eye was turned for too long on instances of abuse. Such scandals lead to an “overkill” response: we must always ensure that such cases will never happen again. This is an impossible goal. What matters most is avoiding a culture of secrecy where abuse can flourish and having a transparent, clearly defined policy for handling any complaints.

Goulder describes the Ofsted rulings as “Kafka-esque” ie both pettifogging and absurd. Do we want young people to think every adult is a potential predator? Years ago there used to be an advertisement to join the Salesians. It probably featured in the Herald. It showed a picture of St John Bosco, their founder, looking down kindly on a young boy, with the quote from the saint: “It is enough that you are young for me to love you.” Previous Catholic generations, who knew of Don Bosco’s apostolate to the ragged youth of Turin, understood exactly what it meant: that it was the very vulnerability of these poor boys that kindled the fatherly love of the priest (who had lost his own father very young). That advert has naturally vanished; in today’s climate of mistrust its meaning would inevitably be twisted. What sad times we live in.

  • Co002al

    Silly me I thought it was the raping of kids that was eroding trust

  • Jonathan West

    Consider this from Alastair Rolfe, describing in the documentary “Chosen” his experiences of abuse at Caldicot, a non-catholic boarding school.

    “The successful paedophiles are the ones that aren’t discovered of course and there are plenty of them around. They are people who have all the social graces that you might expect in someone of normal behaviour. They’re charming, they have good conversation, they’re caring, they’re intelligent, they’re interested, they’re committed to what they’re doing, they earn respect, they appear like any other member of society quite frankly and you just can’t tell. Sorry but you can’t tell.”

    The London Child Protection Procedures say much the same thing in drier language, that there is no profile by which an abuser or potential abuser can be recognised.

    It is a failure to realise this which has contributed so much to the clerical abuse crisis. People have worked themselves into such positions of trust that everyone around them believed it unthinkable that they would abuse. Just remember the cries of disbelief from columnists here when it was learned earlier this year that Father Kit Cunningham had been an abuser.

    Downside is a boarding school. Its pupils are even more vulnerable than pupils of a day school to any abusers who might get into positions of trust. The scandal of Ealing shows what a disaster can follow from such a situation. I have no doubt that hundreds of lives have been blighted by the abuse at Ealing.

    Not knowing the geography of Downside or the evidence the inspectors based their decisions on, I’m not in a position to know whether the restrictions described are appropriate. In the circumstances, especially given that there have been recent allegations of abuse at Downside, I think it would be unwise to assume that the measures recommended have been imposed arbitrarily and without reason.

    No measures can guarantee that there will never be abuse. You can’t entirely guard against the first offence by somebody previously unsuspected. But you can take measures to minimise the risk, to deter abusers and to encourage reporting.

    In terms of the abuse crisis within the Catholic Church, the hierarchy has only itself to blame for scandals like Ealing. The laity are the innocent sufferers in this, most importantly the abused children, but also the adults whose trust has been betrayed. That trust can’t simply be restored, it will have to be earned. To some extent, the process of earning that trust will be for people in positions of responsibility to accept that they themselves cannot automatically be trusted and to submit to external monitoring. When that monitoring occurs and recommends additional measures such as have been described for Downside, then it is counterproductive to complain about bureaucracy gone mad.

  • ms Catholic state

    And the judicial system constantly allows the release of dangerous paedophiles time and time again into the community…..putting children’s lives in mortal danger and terror.

    Let’s face it…’s not as though children’s protection is their top priority.  Curbing and controlling the Church is though.

  • ms Catholic state
  • James

    Had the Church been as vigorous in eradicating sexual abuse, instead of doing its utmost to conceal it, as it is being in opposing legal and fiscal equality for homosexuals this article need never have been written.

  • KF

    James are you objecting to the Church’s failure to champion, promote, bless and defend acting-out of same-sex attractions? The apparent bitterness motivating your complaint here suggests you think the Church is a nonreligious political activist agency “on the wrong side of history.” If you look at that history, you will discover in it, a millennia-old operative participant. A lot of people seem to pine for the Church’s historical staying power, lamenting that they can’t harness it for their political cause du jour/célèbre. You don’t like that the Church won’t knuckle under and get in line behind what politicians fear opposing. I guess somebody has to not like it.

  • Jonathan West

    I think it is reasonable to note the irony in the church being so against homosexual relationships between consenting adults which do nobody any harm, while it has done so little to prevent appallingly harmful acts by its own priests, monks and other officers against children who are no position to give any kind of valid consent at all.

  • Sagesaucer

    What a dangerous combination – Catholic and a Daily Mail reader!

  • maryp

    Jonathan, most recent reports on the contrary show that the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church was perpetrated by those with homosexual tendencies. 

  • Jonathan West

    No, it was perpetrated by those with tendencies to abuse children.

    The fact that more boys that girls have been sexually abused is probably more down to the fact that monks and priests have had more boys than girls in their care. The girls have been in the care of nuns whose abuse historically seems to have been more physical than sexual. Father Kit Cunningham abused boys, though he was by all accounts cheerfully heterosexual.

  • ms Catholic state

    So you think a Catholic who reads the Daily Mail is dangerous…..but violent paedophiles out unaccompanied is not even worth a comment.  I guess it backs up what I just said about priorities…..that child protection isn’t top priority (among the godless ‘intelligentsia) but maligning Catholicism is!!

    It’s all clear now.

  • James

    In reply to KF. My comment was motivated by sadness not by bitterness.

  • Giles Charter

    What a dangerous combination – Catholic, Daily Mail reader, no sense of when she is being teased and advanced skills in non-sequiturs!

  • James

    Cart and horse…..the understandable erosion of trust brought about by the Church’s lamentable record in covering up the abuse of children, minors and vulnerable people has led to ‘heavy handed child protection’.

  • Jeannie

    Now, why would St, John Bosco’s anointed words appear to be twisted today?  Could it be that the Salesians, all over the world have been hounded by proven allegations of Priest or Monk Pedophilia, where the most vulnerable members of society were ruthlessly abused to satisfy a priest or monk’s sexual appetites?  Disgusting!  I am amazed that the Order is still around and that it hasn’t been bankrupted by legal claims of Pedophilia!

  • Jeannie

    When the first cases of abuse came to light in Louisiana and Boston, almost everyone, except for the Survivors of Abuse, who knew better, gave the international Church and the Vatican the benefit of doubt.  “Both couldn’t have known how pervasive the abuse was, all over the world, as the Pope wouldn’t allow it to exist!”    WRONG!  The past popes knew, as well as the recent Pope who was the Perfect for a Vatican post that oversaw all allegations of abuse and removed just a handful from the ministry.  Is the public at large, deaf and dumb?  Or, are they just sick or all of the nauseating stories of abuse, and they just ignore them now.  I have thought in the past, “This or that revelation of institutional abuse by the Church would be the watershed moment when the Pope would be brought up for charges at the Hague.  So far, it hasn’t happened and I’m beginning to wonder if it ever will.

  • Jeannie

    It has been estimated in more than one report that at least 40% of priests are homosexuals.  These are NOT the same as Priest Pedophiles, who can have either a homosexual or heterosexual orientation.  The deal with the Church is that Her priests have a “Get out of Jail FREE CARD, when it comes to secretly, and often openly, acting on their own homosexual orientations, because there are so many homosexuals among their numbers.  Why?  Many bishops and members of the Hierarchy are homosexual and they look the other way when confronted with stories of homosexuality by priests under their charge.  The bishops don’t want their own “sins” exposed.  The Church is ONLY against homosexual relationships, if they do not apply to Her priests!

  • Anonymous

    Is it any wonder though? Confidence has to be earned, and the Church’s record we must all admit has at times been shameful. The minimum age for children at the school is also 11 – which is far to young to be left unattended anyway.

    When I was at school we were not allowed outside of the grounds for our personal safety, we were not allowed to walk down to the shops for lunch, nor to go home for lunch.

  • Parasum

    It *is* “very sad”. But it is hardly surprising – it would not have happened, had it not been provoked by great crimes. The abbey has brought this on itself – it sowed the wind, and now it is reaping a whirlwind. The trouble with doing evil is that our evil-doing almost always affects others, either when we do it, or when we  have to pay for it. In this case, others are having to pay for the wrong-doing of some of the monks. Which is very unfair to those who are incidentally affected by the crimes of others. Evil-doing is deeply unfair – is it any wonder that it has unfair results ?

    And what’s the alternative ? If these rules were absent, the complaint would probably be that Ofsted had done too little to prevent a repetition of these crimes. Don’t blame Ofsted – blame those who’ve disgraced the good name of their Order, their monastic profession, the trust put in them, and the Faith which they profess. Why do people always blame everyone but the guilty parties ? Ofsted is only re-acting to a wickedness it did not cause.

  • Andrew

    I am a pupil at Downside and I thoroughly agree with Jack. The ‘sanctions’ being enforced by Oftsed and other secular governmental organisations on the school’s relationship with the monastic community are ludicrous. I, along with the vast majority of the school, feel they are trying to strip the school of religion and long-standing Catholic tradition. Downside is an amazing school with a great religious heart; however, we are literally being turned away from praying in silence in our free time in the Abbey Church. We are pressurised to avoid the monastery as much as possible, yet religious culture and education is what sets our school apart from others. I believe it is ruining the community of a brilliant school. 

  • Sharkman123

    There would not have to be regulations if it were not for pædophiles like “Father” Nicholas White… As both the school and church were so impotent in the face of well known abuse and merely sent the abuser away “to reconsider his relationship with god” I am glad that the State can act…

  • paddy

     As a former boarder at a salesian school in the 60s who got regularly beaten/ ‘criminalized’ for resisting approaches by abusers who had the run of the dormitories, it was the silence of fellow pupils that still astounds me. Not that they could have done anything then, except perhaps given moral support rather than ostracizing boys who did not stand up to the all powerful priests. But carrying the denial into adulthood, and still denying the need to protect children… Where is the voice of all those fortunate individuals who avoided physical (although presumably serious psychological) harm in support of the victims? There must be hundreds of ‘silent witnesses’ whose betrayal of their former schoolmates is just another, although entirely overlooked failure of the wider church and civil society.

  • Hamish

    I don’t think it’s overprotective for an external board to step in and protect children. I left Downside in 2005 and since I’ve left there have been 5 arrests made on monks who had some form of run-in with the law that related to paedophilia. One was caught masturbating in a primary school car-park, one had a very large amount of child porn on his computer, and of course, there’s Richard White. 
    The Catholic Church’s cover up and protection of child abusers is sickening.
    When I attended the school used to perform teachings that were so far away from the Curriculum it’s no doubt that Ofstead want to monitor the school. 

  • Taylors Holdings

    “Heavy-handed child protection is eroding trust in Catholic schools”
    Good, About time too!

  • Robin L

    Well mistrust of institutions is at the root of the social and spiritual disintegration of UK Plc. There is
    not a single institution of which people are not suspicious and the New elites in politics, business and
    education are widely regarded as corrupt and incompetent. 
    Alas for the Church, the corruption of the best is the worst of all and to close off the monastery from the school and vice versa does not actually resolve the matter. Candidates for the monastic vocation
    as for secular priests must be screened more carefully. In fact stringently forbidding contact with
    others be they school pupils or  women is likely to make the situation worse. These protection measures have been drawn up by people who have no understanding of  the religious vocation nor of the dynamics of  disordered behaviours.