Sexual abuse spanning four decades at two leading Catholic schools was likely to be “considerably” more widespread than previously thought, a report has found.
Monks at Ampleforth in North Yorkshire and Downside in Somerset hid allegations of “appalling sexual abuse” against pupils as young as seven to protect the church’s reputation.
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) made the claims in a withering report on the English Benedictine Congregation, which has 10 monasteries in England and Wales.
Ampleforth and Downside are two schools linked to the monasteries, run at times by “secretive, evasive and suspicious” church officials who avoided reporting misconduct to police and social services.
Ten individuals linked to the schools, mainly monks, have been cautioned or convicted over sexual activity or pornography offences involving a “large number of children”.
“The true scale of the abuse however is likely to be considerably higher,” the investigation, led by Professor Alexis Jay, found.
The chairwoman said: “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.”
The findings renewed calls for the introduction of a “mandatory reporting law”, requiring anyone who believes that a child is being abused to report it to police or child protection services.
One victim, whose life was “destroyed” by the abuse they experienced, said in a statement issued through law firm Slater and Gordon: “The church must cease to be its own judge and jury.”
On Thursday, both Ampleforth and Downside published apologies to the victims of abuse.
The report followed several weeks of evidence hearings at the inquiry last year, which included personal accounts from victims.
Victims were as young as 11 at Downside and seven at Ampleforth.
One alleged offender at Ampleforth abused at least 11 children aged between eight and 12 over a “sustained period of time”, but died before police could investigate.
Others convicted include include Richard White, a Downside monk jailed for five years in 2012 for five indecent assaults against two boys, and Father Piers Grant-Ferris, a Benedictine monk at Ampleforth who was jailed for two years in 2006 for 20 indecent assault on boys between 1966 and 1975.
“Many perpetrators did not hide their sexual interests from the children,” the report found, allowing abusers at Ampleforth to prey on entire groups of pupils both outdoors and indoors.
“The blatant openness of these activities demonstrates there was a culture of acceptance of abusive behaviour,” the report said.
This was a culture fostered by the abbot leading the schools, it was claimed.
In 2001, the Nolan Report recommended all sexual abuse allegations within the church must be referred to police, a position which many felt was “neither obligatory nor desirable”.
The report said: “For much of the time under consideration by the inquiry, the overriding concern in both Ampleforth and Downside was to avoid contact with the local authority or the police at all costs, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged abuse or actual knowledge of its occurrence.
“Rather than refer a suspected perpetrator to the police, in several instances the abbots in both places would confine the individual to the abbey or transfer him and the known risk to a parish or other locations.”
But details of the monks’ predatory pasts were not always passed on to the abbeys to which they were moved.
“Some children were abused as a consequence,” the inquiry said.
The report also found that child protection issues at the schools were not limited to the distant past.
In 2016 and 2017, former abbot of Downside Aidan Bellenger sent two letters to Dom Leo Maidlow Davis, highlighting how four suspected paedophiles remained at Downside, but this information was not passed on to the local authority safeguarding lead.
Dom Leo eventually apologised, but the report said: “The whole incident, having occurred so recently, gives no cause for confidence that the attitudes at Downside had changed enough to put children first over threat to reputation and embarrassment to senior members of the monastic order.”
Accountability within the congregation was exacerbated by “no recognisable line management oversight”, as the monastic order appeared “collaborative rather than hierarchical”.
The inquiry suggested that a “strict separation” between the abbeys and schools was needed to ensure school safeguarding was free from the “often-conflicting priorities of the abbeys”.
Ampleforth took seven years to do this, but Downside still has not.
The Catholic church is one of 13 strands of public life being investigated for child protection failings by the IICSA.