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Downside can emerge renewed from this crisis

The school must reform swiftly to remain a beacon of Benedictine education

By on Friday, 20 January 2012

Downside School, in Somerset, is run by Benedictines

Downside School, in Somerset, is run by Benedictines

When the Benedictines settled at Downside in 1814 they had little more than a farmhouse to move into. It was a bold step: they had been chased out of northern France by revolutionaries in 1795 and there was no guarantee that the people of Somerset would be any more welcoming to Catholics.

At Downside today the old farmhouse remains. But it is dwarfed by an enormous school and a magnificent neo-Gothic abbey. So what happened in the intervening two centuries? The answer is that the monks of Downside earned the trust of generations of Catholic parents who sent their sons to receive a Benedictine education. Downside grew rapidly until, about 100 years ago, it began to rival England’s oldest public schools.

There is no question about it: Downside School is still flourishing. A few years ago, I wrote in this newspaper about its “second spring”, which occurred after 2005 when it allowed girls to join. I noted that the school was livelier and noisier than before and was at its capacity of 430 pupils.

Alas, Downside – as a community – is now experiencing an unexpectedly harsh winter. As friends of the school will know, the Catholic sex abuse scandal recently arrived, like the angel of death, at the door. It did not pass over. One Downside monk, Fr Nicholas White, was imprisoned for five years on January 3 for child sex abuse dating from the late 1980s. Two monks have received police cautions, one a former headmaster for “abuse of a vulnerable person” during the 1980s; two more have been confined to the monastery (with the approval of the appropriate authorities) for “founded” allegations about the early 1990s. Another Downside monk has received a “police warning”, and one more was subjected to a police investigation that concluded without any action being taken.

We are talking, then, of at least six cases where Downside monks have acted improperly or criminally. In the worst case, White was allowed to teach at the school after his actions were discovered. He went on to commit further abuse. (The Abbot of Downside, Dom Aidan Bellenger, has said that the police and press were aware at the time of the first accusations but that the victims’ parents and the police did not proceed to prosecution.) Shockingly, White was allowed to live at the monastery under restrictions from 1999 to 2010, which was a grave error. There is no such thing as a “safe” paedophile living on the site of a school, as St Benedict’s School in Ealing, west London, learned in the case of Fr David Pearce.

The Abbot has expressed deep regret for all of this. “We are truly sorry that children and young people have been abused by those whom they should have been able to trust,” he wrote on January 14 to parents, friends, and former pupils.

The Abbot also noted the recent results of an Ofsted inspection, which concluded that “robust risk assessments are in place to ensure the safety of pupils from adults who should not have unsupervised access to children” and that “the school has made good progress and now meets all the national minimum standards for boarding schools”. He finished his email by saying that, by any measure, Downside “is now a safe, happy and thriving school”.

That may be true, but how can the community as a whole recover from such a major blow to its reputation? This is a crucial question because the school is Downside’s keystone. First, I think that the monks must be utterly candid with parents, without whose trust the school will founder. There must be no obfuscation and no cause for future accusations of cover-up (all school inspection reports from the last five years should be easy to find on the Downside website).

The following three questions are just some of those that must be answered publicly. Are the two monks still living in the monastery under restrictions fit to be in close proximity to the school? Is there anyone else working in the monastery who should be sent away? And do Downside parents know everything they ought to about monks who are still involved with the school?

Answers to such questions must be more than assurances about “outside authorities” and state-approved procedures. This is no time for lawyer-speak. Instead, the answers must fully satisfy Downside parents, and of course the consciences of the Abbot and the headmaster, Dom Leo Maidlow Davis.

It cannot be easy choosing to expel a member of one’s own community. But as the monks will know better than I do, even the Rule of St Benedict allows for this in extreme cases, when the abbot is told to “employ the surgeon’s knife” and be wary that “one diseased sheep may infect the whole flock”.

To the Abbot’s credit, his recent email was written in a spirit of transparency.

But there is one area where openness is lacking: the school’s governance. On the Downside website there is a list of governors, and a note that they are “agents of the trustees”. But there is no mention at all of who the trustees are – six monks and the Abbot, as it happens.

Lord Carlile, who reported on child abuse at St Benedict’s, concluded that the same form of governance at the London day school was “wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable”. He also wrote that “a more modern form of governance, in which the senior teaching management of the school were not effectively under the total control of the abbey” would have helped detect and prevent abuse.

The Liberal Democrat peer’s solution was that an educational charity, separate from the monastery, should be established for the school at St Benedict’s, and that its governing body should a) be diverse, b) not be led by the abbot and c) have a lay majority. The “twin charity” model used by Worth is similar, but the governors of that school’s charity are appointed and led by the abbot.

Whichever model Downside chooses (it’s exploring the options) it is clear to me that the governors must be much more than lay advisers to the monks; they must be able to govern. Furthermore, a number of the governors should be appointed by someone other than the abbot, which would provide real outside authority. Perhaps Highgate School in London could provide a model. It has 12 governors, five of whom are nominated by the Lord Chief Justice, the Bishop of London and the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Radical change can be an alarming prospect. But it won’t be the first time that the monks have embraced it. They boldly moved to Somerset in 1814, built a great public school and accepted girls in 2005 all for the same reason: so that Downside could be a beacon of Benedictine education. The right reforms now will ensure it stays that way.

Will Heaven is assistant comment editor of The Daily Telegraph

  • David Lindsay

    How many local authorities are now going to have control of their schools taken away from them?
    After decades of teaching both children and adults that sex between adults and children, especially teenage boys, was normal and healthy. Even requiring as a condition of certain employment the attainment and periodic maintenance of qualifications requiring one at least to read, if not to write, such material.

    And after decades of putting it all into practice in their “care homes” and similar institutions.
    At least the Catholic Church has always taught against this sort of thing. Those who engaged in it were breaking the rules and they knew it, however imperfect the institutional response might sometimes have been. Not so, the Church’s smuggest and fiercest critics. Who now scent blood in their long-running battle for control of Her schools. And who are almost never so much as investigated, no matter how clear the case against them. I wonder why not?

    All of this, I might add, was a pioneering example of something that is now endemic, and universally regarded as a good thing by central government and its attendant adolescents, namely the running of councils by the staff instead of by the councillors.

  • Jonathan West

    For Downside School to have a governing body with lay leadership, proper executive powers and drawn from a wider range of backgrounds and experience is a good idea of and for itself. 

    But it isn’ t a magic bullet that will fix safeguarding. It is not just schools run by monks that have had child abuse scandals,or even just Catholic schools. There are secular independent schools which have such problems as well.

    They key thing is to have an absolute commitment that all allegations or incidents will be promptly reported in writing to the authorities. No exceptions, for any reason whatsoever. 

    That commitment itself has to be in writing and published in the school’s child protection policy, and the policy itself must not contain procedures which undermine or qualify the commitment.

    This should be allied to education both of children and parents about “inappropriate touching” so that if an incident occurs, it is likely to get reported quickly.

    These two measures will deter abusers, because they don’t want to get caught, and a system of unconditional reporting makes if very likely that they will get reported.

    Downside doesn’t yet have this commitment in its policy, it only promises (with some exceptions) to “consult” the authorities, rather than make a written report. Unconditional reporting has been guidance to all catholic institutions since publication of the Nolan report in 2001. It is tremendously disappointing that Downside, even after it has been the centre of a child sex abuse scandal, still can’t get this basic point right. It is still looking for wriggle room to avoid always reporting abuses. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jack-Hughes/100000562751914 Jack Hughes

    And here cometh the angel of hell Mr Jonothan West who wishes to create hell on earth by presuming guilt until innocence is proven.

  • Jonathan West

    And here cometh the demon of denial, who would like the problem just to go away.

  • Dangermouse

    oh no, not west again. doesn’t he have a life a outside abuse? what about train spotting as a suitable alternative? lovely trains go through reading and it’s quite close to ealing.

  • Jonathan West

    Shoot the messenger…

  • Dangermouse

    not at all. but allow things to improve. history should be viewed in context. i was a st benedict’s boy and i am “quite” normal…discuss

  • Jonathan West

    And you would improve things how?

  • Jonathan West

    There must be no obfuscation and no cause for future accusations of cover-up (all school inspection reports from the last five years should be easy to find on the Downside website).

    Fat chance. I notice that the ISI report of the June 2011 follow-up inspection has already been removed from list of reports on the school website. Of course, it wasn’t complimentary to the school. In fact I’ve never read such a blistering condemnation of a school’s child protection arrangements. And this was six months after the school had originally been failed on its safeguarding arrangements, at the joint inspection carried out in December 2010.

    The summary of the June 2011 ISI report said that “overall progress to implement the steps outlined by the school in its action plan have generally been slow at best and, in some areas, it is hard to identify specific improvements that have been achieved in six months.

    But you don’t hear the Abbot talking about that.

  • Siobhan

    I would just like to say that there is widespread knowledge about abuse in a well known London state school and no parent, child or staff member has ever been able to bring about a successful investigation. I am really sorry to say but with regard to the Catholic church, it is still a case of friends in high places really offer protection.

  • Dangermouse

    stop hounding them and let them implement carlile’s reforms AND before you say they don’t go far enough; nothing is perfect,life is trial and error. you do not have all the answers to the human condition

  • Jonathan West

    I’ve mentioned before that Carlile has rather missed the point. It’s not a matter of him not having gone far enough or not far enough, it is just that what he has recommended is a perfectly good idea but it has no relevance to the original problem. The inquiry was supposed to be about safeguarding, and all he’s done is produce proposals for governance.

    So, I’ll ask again, what improvements are you waiting for?

  • Jonathan West

    Send me the details by email, its available on my blog, and I’ll look into it

  • Dangermouse

    your obsession is commendable but all this happened many many years ago at st.b’s and you seem not to have noticed that all those parents of current pupils are still paying their fees. they are forward looking not navel gazing at the past.

  • Jonathan West

    The shortcoming in the child protection policies continued (and still continues) under the present abbot and management. Father David Pearce’s last victim was abused as recently as 2007. There was a further case in 2010 which triggered an investigation by Social Services.

    This extends to the very recent past, and the school’s child protection policy even now does not unequivocally promise to make a written report of all allegations and incidents to the authorities.

    For the parents to want to do anything, they will first have to acknowledge that they have possibly made a £100,000 mistake over the education of their children. Much easier to look the other way and hope for the best. 

  • Anonymous

    Would someone please explain what has changed at Downside to allow the successors of Dom David Knowles and Dolly Brooks to become homosexuals and child abusers? Has modern monastic life become so meaningless?

  • Dangermouse

    if you can afford £100,000 you don’t look the other way and hope for the best.

  • Jonathan West

    I’ve corresponded with Downside parents who are doing precisely that.

  • Dangermouse

    you seem very bitter about catholicism. there is far more abuse outside the church than in. just look at any daily paper. 

  • Jonathan West


    I’m anti-abuse, not anti-catholic. If I were as twisted about catholicism as you suggest, then, realising that it is predominantly the children of catholics who attend catholic schools, I would leave the catholic church to stew in the whole foetid mess of the abuse scandal, and I would let as many children be abused as possible and stay very quiet about it.

    But I’m not. I recognise that children at Catholic schools are not guilty of the crimes that have been committed against them, and they deserve some support and protection. Likewise, the now adult victims of former crimes also deserve some support, quite possibly including some of your classmates. So, I’m making the biggest noise I can, in the hope that it will help protect children. I can’t fix the whole world, so I’m dealing with my own local corner of it – the abuse that happened at the school my son attended, and other schools related to it.

    What are you doing to protect the children you say are more at risk?

  • Anonymous

    All that Downside needs to do to make quite certain that such crimes are never committed on their premises again is to copy the secular practice of installing CCTV in all main rooms and passages throughout the establishment.
    The system would need to be closely monitored 24/7 to eliminate all possibility of any adult member of the staff molesting any pupil, or indeed any pupil bullying another.  The civic authorities can do it; the Church will have to do it.  If they really mean business.