Shadow of abuse lingers over abbey

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Ampleforth expresses remorse as monk is convicted of indecent assault between 1966 and 1975, reports Elaine Williams.

The sonorous peal of bells calling the faithful to midday Mass reverberates around the grounds of Ampleforth Abbey and college. The Benedictine monastery, one of the largest in Europe, dominates its North Yorkshire setting, and continues a 200-year tradition of worship on the site.

This week, however, the community was in sombre mood after a monk admitted in court that he indecently assaulted young boys when he taught in Ampleforth's prep school 30 years ago.

Father Piers Grant-Ferris, 72, son of Lord Harvington, a Tory peer, admitted 20 charges of indecent assault involving 15 boys under the age of 13 between 1966 and 1975.

He was released on bail, but faces jail in January, when he will be sentenced.

His case follows that of Father Gregory Carroll, 66, jailed for four years in September for indecent acts involving 10 boys when he taught at the college's former junior house 25 years ago. Police believe two other Ampleforth monks and a lay person, now dead, also abused pupils.

Although these cases are historic, they highlight the way sex abusers within the Roman Catholic church were dealt with in the past, from the highest authority downward. Often priests were simply moved on or away from the scene of the offence in the hope this would prevent a recurrence.

It is believed that Basil Hume, Abbot of Ampleforth at the time and later a Cardinal, received a complaint from parents about Grant-Ferris - a former pupil at Ampleforth - in 1975.

Although the Abbot removed him from the school, sending him to a parish in Workington, Cumbria, the police were not informed. Had this happened, police believe, subsequent abuse at Ampleforth could have been prevented.

In the wake of the Nolan report, produced after a series of sex scandals involving Catholic priests in the 1990s, guidelines ensure that anyone with a complaint about a priest is referred immediately to the police, or the authorities in question alert them themselves.

In a letter sent to parents and friends of the Ampleforth monastery and college last Friday, Father Cuthbert Madden, the present Abbot, said the abuse represented a "terrible betrayal" of responsibility. "Though the events themselves may be decades old, the damage done will have lived on,"

he wrote.

He said the Ampleforth community offered its "heartfelt remorse" for "those who have suffered".

"We have failed you and betrayed the trust you put in us," he wrote. He went on to say that the school's framework of reporting, monitoring and pastoral supervision to provide safeguards for child protection was "almost unrecognisable from (that) applying in those days".

The college says it has worked hard over the past decade to put in place rigorous child-protection procedures.

Peter Green, the school's child protection officer and Ampleforth's second master, was previously housemaster in another private school. He said staff were "more vigilant" than he had known elsewhere and students were "extraordinarily aware" of procedures due to adverse publicity.

"We have a well-stated whistle-blowing policy in staff and student literature," he said.

All house monitors, the senior students in the school, are trained in child protection. Indeed, in a recent report by the Commission for Social Care Inspection, the college was commended for its child-protection procedures.

Although some of the monks remain housemasters, they have the support of a lay assistant housemaster or duty member of academic staff at all times.

Out of seven housemasters, four are monks, with two housemistresses in addition. Their role is to care for students in loco parentis, 24 hours of each day, sharing meals, dealing with disciplinary issues, supervising bedtimes, ensuring students' well-being and integration into the school.

Out of a teaching staff of around 70, nine are monks.

Much has changed within the make-up and nature of Ampleforth's monastic community.

In recent years, two psychologists have been attached to the monastery.

They interview all applicants and create a bespoke programme for them.

Their advice is also available to all of the monks, and the Abbot refers those he feels need their support.

It was through them that the historic cases relating to Carrol and Grant-Ferris came to light. They had been referred by the Abbot to Dr Elizabeth Mann, one of the psychologists, who then contacted the police.

In addition, those who have taken their vows during the past 20 years, unlike the majority before, are not - bar one - old boys of the school but men, like the present Abbot, who have entered in their mid to late thirties from other backgrounds.

Father Gabriel, the present headteacher, appointed when the school became co-educational last year, was previously an Anglican priest in Hartlepool.

He certainly needs all his resolve and resourcefulness to run the school in the present climate.

Ampleforth Abbey and a past housemaster of the college's former junior house, Father Jeremy Sierla, face a civil action from a former pupil arising from allegations which prompted a police investigation in 2004 into events alleged to have taken place a decade earlier, but which did not result in a criminal charge and which the Abbey and Father Sierla vigorously deny.

In addition, this past term has seen Ampleforth facing charges of fee-fixing.

The school, whose full boarding fee is pound;22,000 a year, was named in a provisional finding by the Office of Fair Trading as one of 50 top public schools in breach of competition law by sharing information about fees. The OFT says this has led to parents paying more than necessary. Father Gabriel's rebuttal was swift. Great care, he said, had always been taken when setting fees "to charge no more than is essential to maintain the standards of education and pastoral care that we know parents expect."

If anything, it seems, the pastoral care as well as the spiritual life of the school has been strengthened and renewed for the development of co-education.

A growing proportion of the staff is female and chaplains, who are monks, have been appointed to all the houses, seen as important support for girls, more than 25 per cent of whom are non-Catholic.

Out of 600 pupils, 20 per cent are now girls. Father Gabriel has spent much time making a reality of his vision of deepening the Benedictine character of the school, adapting a rule "written by a monk in the 6th century for his monastic community, to a school in the 21st century for young men and women destined for life in the big, wide world".

He said: "It's about 'finding God in people' as Benedict did, about having the stimulus to grow and change, for each day to provide a fresh start, and about developing a culture of listening."

With the school mired in damaging publicity, such aspirations may seem naively optimistic, but staff and pupils will tell you that they are the reality today.

Staff, who feel frustrated that Ampleforth comes over as an isolated, damaged community and that their students are also blackened by this, point to the extensive international charitable work undertaken by students, monks and staff alike, and to the fact that numbers have gone up by 120 in the past three years.


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