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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Catholic School with appalling abuse record determined to retain reporting loopholes

Lord Carlile QC released his report on Wednesday into decades of abuse at St Benedict’s independent RC School run by the adjacent Ealing (Benedictine) Abbey in west London.

An independent inquiry by leading QC Lord Carlile of Berriew has recommended that monks must be stripped of control at a Catholic school in London after decades of child sex abuse.

The report contained details of over twenty accusations he had received, some with multiple victims. Two perpetrators have been convicted and another has jumped bail and is the subject of an international arrest warrant. Lord Carlile lambasted the monastic community for its "lengthy and culpable failure to deal with what at times must have been evident behaviour placing children at risk".

The NSS submitted a great deal of evidence to Lord Carlile who acknowledged and thanked us for our "constructive" contributions.

Even the Abbot accepts that the governance arrangements, where the Abbey had total control, were "opaque to outsiders" and accepts that in the case of one of those convicted that "the commitment to trust within the community ... appears to have overshadowed responsibility for children's welfare".

Lord Carlile concluded that the monks should be shorn of direct responsibility for school governance which should be much more open and accountable. St Benedict's is not the only Benedictine school in England with the same governance model which failed.

At the press conference to launch the report, attended by the national press, Keith Porteous Wood offered Lord Carlile some obvious improvements to the new child protection procedures set out for the school – and which the headmaster had just heralded as the best there was.

Why, Mr Porteous Wood demanded, were there multiple exceptions permitted to the requirement to report concerns to the police or local authority or rather than, as there should be, an absolute requirement to do so? He also suggested that the school should widely publicise a telephone number to which concerns could be raised with an independent external body.

Mr Porteous Wood said that if St Benedict's procedure to protect pupils — with all its obvious flaws and loopholes — was as had been claimed the best available, what were the implications for other schools? To his credit, Lord Carlile picked this point up and expressed his agreement.

All too predictably, even in front of the press corps, the child protection officer refused to take the suggestion onboard with the lame assertion that they always did report abuses, something that has clearly not happened in the past. The BBC picked up our point and taxed the headteacher with them in a televised interview – he was similarly evasive. One would have imagined that those anxious to do their best to avoid any repetition would have welcomed such suggestions for making the procedures watertight.

Another questioner, blogger Jonathan West, without whom much of this history of abuse would not have been brought to the public's attention, was particularly incensed by the headteacher's assertion just last year (2010) in a formal speech that "I absolutely refute that anyone associated with St Benedict's school has misled the Inspectors or protected offenders." He proceeded to warn off those seeking to bring the rape and abuse into the public by smearing them as an "anti-Catholic movement linked to the papal visit".

Mr West asked the head, who has been in post a long time, to consider his position. Needless to say he did not. The NSS later told Sky television in an interview that in any other walk of life it was inconceivable that those such as the headmaster and the, also long-serving, Abbott would have remained in their posts. (Here is a sample of Jonathan West's blog.)

The head claimed, in response to another of Mr West's questions that he was not aware of anyone remaining at the nearby Abbey who had been found to have behaved inappropriately. Yet in the report itself — which the Head agreed he had read — one was named.

A letter in the Times on 1 November 2011 by the the Right Rev John Arnold, Cumberlege Commission, Apostolic Visitor to Ealing Abbey headed "The Catholic Church is committed to maintaining transparency and fully co-operating with the statutory authorities" was flatly refuted in detail by Mr West in a reply in the following day's edition. There was also criticism at the press conference of the so-called apostolic visitation (Pope's inquiry), because the head of England's Bendictines was part of the visitation.

The problem at Ealing is part of a more disturbing national picture. The suffering of the victims has been further intensified by the supine Cumberlege Commission (responsible for RC child protection in England and Wales) and the former Chairman of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, Vincent Nichols, now Archbishop of Westminster.

Keith Porteous Wood was adamant that Vincent Nichols and the Cumberlege Commission's "complacency, failure to tackle the problem head on and vested interest in protecting the Church's reputation has directly led to these criminals being harboured to offend again. We call on Vincent Nichols and all those responsible for the Benedictine Order and other Catholic bodies outside the diocesan structure to publicly instruct everyone under their control to report all known or suspected abuse, whether physical mental or sexual, to the prosecuting authorities. They must also be required to make available all evidence, if necessary calling for its return from Rome, where it is believed that much of it has been mandated to be sent."

On wider legal issues, Lord Carlile referred to a crucial case concluded this week in Portsmouth.

Keith Porteous Wood said: "We urge that developments in law in the UK and US to be exploited to ensure that the Church is required to pay much more generous compensation for the often life-destroying harm done and to ensure that the many who have impeded investigation should now also be punished appropriately through criminal and civil processes."

Read the full independent report into matters relating to Ealing Abbey and St Benedict's school (pdf).

See also:

Catholic school St Benedict's sorry for sex abuse 'legacy' (BBC: NSS quoted)

Victim reveals horror of cover up at abbey

Pope order sex abuse enquiry at abbey

Published Fri, 11 Nov 2011