Keeping the faith

3rd February 2012 at 00:00
Child abuse scandals have beset St Benedict's, a Catholic independent in west London, over recent years. Now its leaders are keen to move forward under a new governorship. But as David Rogers reports, its history will be hard to leave behind

As far as Google is concerned, the school's reputation precedes it. And for just about any headteacher, it represents the ultimate nightmare.

Type "St Benedict's, Ealing" into the search engine and the word "abuse" will appear among the results. The term "scandal" also crops up.

As head of St Benedict's School, a #163;12,000-a-year independent Catholic co-ed of 1,200 pupils aged 3-18, Chris Cleugh (left) admits that there are other aspects of the school's history that he'd prefer prospective parents to discover casually. "If I was moving to Ealing and read this press, the last thing I'd want to do is send my kids here," he says.

To the outside world, the west London school's nightmare began in 2009 when a former head of its junior school, Father David Pearce - the independent is owned by a charitable trust controlled by monks at the nearby Ealing Abbey - was jailed for eight years after being convicted of abusing five boys over a period of 36 years. Four of the victims were below the age of 14.

Pearce last taught in 1992, but he was living in the monastery when he attacked his last victim in 2007 - an older boy in the sixth form who was working in the monastery's kitchens when he was abused. It was this attack that blew the lid on the scandal - and ever since, like a boxer caught on the ropes, the school has been lurching from one pummelling to another.

In 2010, St Benedict's asked Lord Carlile, the former Liberal Democrat MP, to produce an independent report into what had been going on at the school, and how to fix it.

For everyone concerned, it made pretty grim reading when it was finally published. Running to 56 pages, the report was sent to the Department for Education, the Charity Commission and the Independent Schools Council. It looked at 21 attacks since 1970, and Carlile, now a practising barrister, says he was contacted by about 100 people "who felt they had a contribution to make to my process".

"The type of abuse alleged ranges across the spectrum of such behaviour," he adds. "In several cases, I received distressing accounts of personal experiences that have left a permanent psychological mark."

The report, which was published last November and gave rise to yet another volley of unwelcome headlines, had at its core the recommendation that the monks should lose control of the school and a new governing body should be appointed. It was also recommended that the changes should be implemented by September and that the new structure should be transparent, understandable to outsiders and deliver effective monitoring and safeguarding policies and procedures.

Three months on, and Cleugh is trying to move forward. The priests who carried out the attacks - there were others besides Pearce - have "betrayed" the school, according to Cleugh. "Pearce has done untold damage to the school and the monastic community," he says.

He is speaking while the abbot of Ealing Abbey, the Right Reverend Dom Martin Shipperlee, looks on. A former trainee accountant before becoming a monk in 1981, he became abbot in 2000.

Given what Pearce has done to the five individuals concerned and the school as a whole, some might be surprised that the abbot reveals that his abbey is still in contact with him.

Shipperlee admits that he has visited Pearce once in prison and that a second monk from the abbey has also made visits. The obvious question is why do that, considering all that's happened? "I'm not supporting him, but he's still, for better or for worse, part of our priesthood. I could pretend he doesn't exist, but he does. By the time he leaves prison he will no longer be a member of the (Ealing Abbey) community," he says.

Still, it seems odd that there is, even now, a loose connection between the abbey and Pearce. "I can see why people might be surprised - he's caused huge harm and damage," says Shipperlee. "We don't approve of him and we're devastated by what he's done. (But) bad people need help as well. You can't wash your hands of all contact."

Pearce can apply for parole later this year; his sentence was reduced to five years. "I don't know where he will live," says the abbot. "He can't come back here."

At this point, Cleugh, who did not attend Pearce's trial and has not visited him in prison, tries to put some of the abbot's comments in perspective. "(Pearce) is human and one of the things the Catholic faith has got to allow for is reconciliation," he says. "It doesn't mean we excuse what has gone on, but the belief of the faith is that he's redeemable. Until he comes out of prison, he's still a member of the monastic community."

The two men concede that the scandal which has dogged the school since 2009 might still have some time to run its course. "Both of us have done a lot of saying sorry," Cleugh says. "Will there ever not be a scandal in the future? I can't give that guarantee, but our policies are now such that we will have done everything exactly right."

Just a month before Carlile's report was made public, it emerged that Shipperlee's predecessor, Father Laurence Soper, who held the post between 1991 and 2000, had failed to answer police bail. Detectives had already questioned him over alleged sex abuse offences concerning five male pupils dating back 20 years. He was due to report to a London police station last March, but he never showed up.

Soper, who taught maths and was head of the middle school before giving up teaching in 1984, is believed to be somewhere in Europe. Speculation has him hiding at a monastery in Rome. Where does Shipperlee think he is? "I haven't a clue. If I did, I'd tell the police. He's certainly not hiding in our monastery," he says. It initially crossed his mind that Soper had taken his own life, but Shipperlee now thinks he's still alive.

It's a mess, for sure - and when there's a mess on this scale it usually means that the man at the top has to go. Shipperlee admits to making some "disastrously wrong judgements" but, he adds, "I'm frequently asked if I should resign, but that wouldn't make any of this any better."

A month after Pearce was convicted in October 2009, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) praised St Benedict's when its inspectors called. Five months later, they were back after a tip-off from a member of the public that a monk being investigated by social services was still living in the monastery next door.

The inspection was conducted over two days in April and May 2010, and the new verdict read very differently from the November report, which had branded all major aspects of St Benedict's as "good or outstanding" and, crucially, said "no action is required in respect of regulatory requirements".

The new report said that "the school had not made all necessary referrals directly to the appropriate authorities" - in other words, it was being accused of suppressing the facts. The ISI report's first recommendation read thus: "Ensure that any staff (no allegations against current staff had been reported) or members of the religious community live away from the school if they are subject to allegations of misconduct related to safeguarding or convicted of wrongdoing."

Cleugh knew immediately the implications of what the inspectors were saying. "To the outside world, it looked as if we had been covering up. Until my dying day, I will categorically deny that," he says. The report came out in August of that year, but in what he now acknowledges was a mistake, Cleugh decided not to address parents about what it said until the start of the term in September. This inaction simply fuelled the rumours further. He learned his lesson, he says. By the time Carlile's report came out, all parents were sent a copy the day before it was published, so they knew what was in it.

Shipperlee admits that for a time in summer 2010 he was unsure whether the school would make it through. "There was a moment of, 'My goodness me, we're being looked at by the police, the ISI, the DfE. Everybody is staring at us intently.' I was asking, 'Is this the end of it?'"

Working to bring stability

Personal abuse against Cleugh began to appear on the internet, claiming that he was harbouring paedophiles. He recalls one incident in which a pupil was stopped on the Tube and told: "You go to the school run by paedophiles."

Had he ever considered resigning, too? He says no, but admits that the "last 16 months have been horrific". "I've never felt it's been wrong for me to work here," he says. "I genuinely believe that what I've done is for the better of the school. If I felt I had deliberately lied, I would resign. If I felt my actions had led to the abuse of a child, I would resign."

And his faith in Catholic education has not been knocked by the recent setbacks. "My own faith is very important to me and I believe passionately in Catholic education," he says. "I don't think Catholic schools indoctrinate. They work with a young person and build up their self-esteem."

These beliefs stem from an early age when he attended St Mary's College in Crosby, today an independent Catholic school but at the time a direct-grant grammar school, to which he returned first as a maths and chemistry teacher before rising to deputy head. He is now its chair of governors.

It is clear that, as he walks around St Benedict's, Cleugh is liked and respected. He tells a former pupil, now at university in the North West, to pop along and see his beloved Everton; he consoles another about flunking an Oxbridge entrance exam.

He knows that the school has been through the sort of trauma - much of it self-inflicted - that means it now needs stability above all else. He had planned to retire this year - he turns 60 in May - but says he is staying on until August 2016 to make sure that what Carlile recommends actually happens. And he wants his successor to be working from a clean slate. "I want to give the school that stability, and the new governors can then appoint their new head," he says.

Former Tory MP Chris Patten, a former head boy at St Benedict's and now chairman of the BBC, is advising the school on how to implement Carlile's recommendations and will be there in July when its new structure is launched.

Cleugh knows that it will take time for the school to recover. "It's going to follow us for a while," he says. It's possible Carlile represents the turning of a corner, but for the time being, any recovery is bound to be brittle. "We are", he says, "scarred by it."


Some of Lord Carlile's most strident criticisms are reserved for the way the school has been governed.

Governorship was, he said, "outdated and demonstrably unacceptable": "It lacks elements of independence, transparency, accountability and diversity."

He said that in order to remove "any semblance of a conflict of interest or lack of independent scrutiny", two charitable trusts should be created - one based on the monastery and a new educational charity consisting of up to 24 members which should include parents, staff and pupils. And there should "always be a lay (non-monastic) majority".

Carlile's report criticised the abbot over how he dealt with Father David Pearce when allegations were made against him in 1992, particularly the fact that he carried on living at the monastery. "The commitment to trust within the community and to St Benedict's rule of love and forgiveness appears to have overshadowed responsibility for children's welfare," it said.

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