How two top boarding schools tried to cover up 40 years of 'appalling abuse'

Ampleforth College and Downside School 'prioritised the monks and their own reputations over the protection of children', finds inquiry

Charlotte Santry

Ampleforth College

The "appalling" abuse suffered by pupils across two "secretive" Catholic boarding schools over a 40-year period has been set out in a damning report today.

The abuse was inflicted on children as young as seven at Ampleforth College, in North Yorkshire, and 11 at Downside School, in Somerset, according to the report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Both schools "prioritised the monks and their own reputations over the protection of children, manoeuvring monks away from the schools in order to avoid scandal", the report said.

Inquiry chair, Professor Alexis Jay, said: “For decades Ampleforth and Downside tried to avoid giving any information about child sexual abuse to police and social services. 

"Instead, monks in both institutions were very often secretive, evasive and suspicious of anyone outside the English Benedictine Congregation.

“Safeguarding children was less important than the reputation of the Church and the wellbeing of the abusive monks. 

"Even after new procedures were introduced in 2001, when monks gave the appearance of co-operation and trust, their approach could be summarised as a ‘tell them nothing’ attitude.”  

Ten individuals connected to the schools, mostly monks, have been convicted or cautioned in relation to offences involving sexual activity with a large number of children, or pornography.

But the true scale of the abuse is likely to be "considerably higher", according to the report. 

The inquiry found that many perpetrators did not hide their sexual interests from the boys they taught.

At Ampleforth, this included communal activities, both outdoors and indoors, involving fondling of children, mutual and group masturbation.

The report said that for decades, monks in both institutions "tried to avoid giving information to the statutory authorities, other than that specifically requested, which might have helped investigations into the abuse of children in their care".

In both schools, abbots designated people from within the order to carry out a form of "risk-assessment" of known or alleged abusers despite them having no expertise or relevant experience.

The results of these "assessments" were often biased, the inquiry found, meaning abusers were tolerated and behaviours were indulged as "one-off" slips with no foundations for reaching such conclusions.

The inquiry recommended a strict separation between the governance of the abbeys and schools to ensure safeguarding is not undermined by "the often-conflicting priorities of the abbeys". 

It found: "This took too long to achieve at Ampleforth. And more than eight years after Downside’s governing body began considering the issue, it is still working towards the school becoming both legally and financially separate and independent of the monastery.

"Whilst some steps have been taken, neither Ampleforth nor Downside has formally established a comprehensive redress scheme, financial or otherwise, and other than in the context of this inquiry, no public apology has been made."

In a joint statement, Downside Abbey and School said: "We would like to reiterate our sincere and unreserved apology to all victims and survivors of sexual abuse suffered as a result of the actions of some within the Downside community.

"The abbey and school fully acknowledges the serious failings and mistakes made in both protecting those within our care and responding to safeguarding concerns. We have reflected deeply and will continue to listen with the ear of the heart going forward to ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated."

A number of steps are being taken to improve safeguarding: monks no longer hold key positions in the school; plans for a new independent school trust "are underway"; a new lay headmaster has been appointed; and new school trustees are being appointed.

A spokesperson for Ampleforth College said: “We are committed to providing the highest possible standards when it comes to looking after those entrusted to our care and have welcomed the opportunity to work with IICSA on this wide-ranging inquiry into the best ways to protect children.   

"We have publicly accepted responsibility for past failings on many occasions, and the Ampleforth of today has never been afraid to learn difficult lessons."  

The school is developing a Safeguarding Charter, working with a national expert.

The spokesperson added: "We would also like to once again offer our heartfelt apology to anyone who suffered abuse while in the care of our schools, parishes or other ministries."

Last month, the Department for Education ordered Ampleforth College to produce an action plan setting out how it will address serious safeguarding failings uncovered by inspectors.

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Charlotte Santry

Charlotte Santry

Charlotte Santry is deputy news editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @CharlotteSantry

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