A leading Catholic school has been condemned for a "sadistic and predatory" atmosphere with a culture of excessive corporal punishment, according to a report published today.
The report into Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse describes the atmosphere at St Benedict’s, in south-west London, as sadistic and predatory with a culture of excessive corporal punishment. In many cases, physical abuse was used as a platform for sexual gratification and a means by which to instigate sexual abuse.
The inquiry, which heard evidence from those who had been sexually abused at St Benedict’s School over five days of public hearings in February, also highlights the flawed responses to allegations, both by the Church and external institutions.
The report, part of a wider investigation into the Roman Catholic Church, describes how senior figures at the school and abbey were perpetrators of abuse, with staff members warned to say nothing, leaving victims feeling they had nowhere to turn.
This led to a culture of abuse spanning 30 years.
One victim, referring to former abbot Laurence Soper, currently serving 18 years in prison, said: “I often wonder what my life would have been like if I hadn’t been abused ... I feel like I am still in a black hole and just can’t climb out of it. I don’t think I can ever put down in words fully what has done to me. He has damaged me for life and I am afraid that that damage will never go away.”
Prolific abusers like Soper and David Pearce were senior figures at the school and Abbey, making reporting more difficult for both victims and staff. They described the atmosphere as feeling “like the mafia” and chose not to risk their jobs. Soper is known to have abused at least 10 children at St Benedict’s between 1972 and 1983, including multiple rapes.
Many of the assaults were committed during acts of corporal punishment apparently inflicted on the slightest of pretexts, the report says.
By 2002, two years after he had resigned as Abbot, Soper had been appointed general treasurer for the International Benedictine Conference in Rome, residing in Sant’Anselmo. Whilst on police bail in 2011, he left Sant’Anselmo, purportedly returning to London. He absconded and a European Arrest Warrant was issued. Some five years later he was located in Kosovo and extradited. In 2017, he was finally sentenced, more than 40 years since his offending began.
Pearce and two lay teachers, John Maestri and Stephen Skelton, have also been convicted of multiple offences involving the sexual abuse of more than 20 children between at least the 1970s and 2008. In 2016, deputy head Peter Allott was convicted of offences relating to the possession of indecent images of children.
The Inquiry received evidence of at least 18 further allegations against the men convicted and eight other monks and teachers.
Abuse ranged from corporal punishment to grooming, fondling of genitalia, masturbation, oral and anal rape. "The total scale of the abuse can never be known, but is likely to be much greater," said IICSA.
While there were many opportunities to stop abusers in the school, these were not acted on. "Instead, a culture of cover-up and denial at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s meant the abuse went on for decades," said IICSA.
Abbot Martin Shipperlee, who resigned over his failure to investigate abuse, is condemned for serious shortcomings, and for inadequate and ill-judged actions.
In one example, the report says, a civil trial against Pearce found allegations against him were proven. But there were even then no changes to the restrictions placed on him. The same year, Pearce started to sexually abuse a 16-year-old boy who was working in the monastery.
The report also considers how Shipperlee's failings were compounded by those of others around him, including former headteacher Christopher Cleugh. It describes how Cleugh repeatedly minimised questions of child sexual abuse to the point of "materially misrepresenting significant facts".
The report states also that the Metropolitan Police made mistakes in how some of the early allegations against former monks Pearce and Soper were investigated, with the Crown Prosecution Service bearing some responsibility for the fact that neither was prosecuted sooner.
It took members of the public to point out the errors in the conclusions made by the Independent Schools Inspectorate, leading to a report they published in 2009 being withdrawn.
The report also identifies a "closed and defensive culture" in the English Benedictine Congregation, where teachers and other monks were reluctant to support allegations of abuse for fear it would undermine the institutions and the Church. "That made it harder for complaints to be made, and easier for the abuse to continue," says the report.
It remains to be seen whether Ealing Abbey proves itself capable of ensuring proper safeguarding of children at risk in future, the report concludes
The inquiry’s final public hearing into the Roman Catholic Church will begin on the 28 October and will run for two weeks.
Professor Alexis Jay, inquiry chair, said: “For years, a culture of cover-up and denial meant children at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School suffered appalling sexual and physical abuse. A reluctance to properly respond to safeguarding concerns meant significant opportunities to stop abusers were missed. When action was taken, the responses of senior staff, headmasters and external institutions were often poorly judged or flawed. As a result, children were left at risk of abuse which could have been stopped decades earlier.
Leading lawyer Richard Scorer, who has represented many victims of clerical sex abuse, tweeted: "Damning #IICSA report today on Ealing Catholic sex abuse scandal notes that for safeguarding in future “much will now depend on the leadership of the Abbot President”. Relying on this won’t work. We need #mandatoryreporting so those who cover up abuse face criminal penalties."
Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon who represents seven victims of abuse at St Benedict’s, later told The Tablet: “This report reveals an utterly damning litany of abuse at the school and abbey over many decades, and exposes how senior Benedictine leaders both perpetrated abuse and then covered it up, with the assistance and complicity of the wider Catholic church. This complicity continues today with the Vatican’s continuing refusal to cooperate with this inquiry.
“The Catholic church needs to be held accountable for its criminality, but unless and until we have a mandatory reporting law, requiring knowledge or suspicion of abuse to be reported on pain of criminal prosecution, these cover ups will continue. I urge the inquiry in its final recommendations to demand such a law without delay”.
Elsewhere the report noted the major developments at two other Benedictine institutions, Ampleforth and Downside, that have taken place since the Inquiry first opened public hearings into them in 2017.
At Ampleforth, it noted that the abbot has stepped aside and that the abbey is currently run by a prior administrator. An interim manager appointed by the Charity Commission runs the College and St Martin’s school. The College is in the process of recruiting a new permanent headteacher.
Meanwhile Ampleforth’s Safeguarding Commission has been disbanded and a replacement commission is due to be set up with guidance from the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service (CSAS). New safeguarding roles - including a Director of Safeguarding and a Monastic Safeguarding Coordinator - are to be created in the near future.
It also noted that an Apostolic Visitation had taken place last year.
“We are aware that Ampleforth remains the subject of scrutiny by external authorities," IICSA said. "It is now a matter for those authorities to conclude their work. In those circumstances, we do not feel it appropriate to make further comment.”
The report also noted that Downside has separated its school from the abbey, and the school has become fully self-governing. A new prior administrator is in place, and the school has a new headmaster. No member of the Downside monastic community will be eligible to become a trustee, nor will the chair of trustees have to be a Catholic.