Week 3 of the English Benedictine Congregation Inquiry – Crass Disregard for Children and Burning Records

The evidence started this week with former headmaster, Aidan Bellenger, who was complacent and slightly evasive in his evidence. He agreed there was a conflict between the best interests of children and having the monastery in the control of the governors and finance. He admitted being involved in the decision-making on allowing a serial abuser, Richard White, back into the monastery. He told the Inquiry he wasn’t aware that DC Mark White considered that he was obstructing the police investigation and was close to being arrested. He denied being slow to reveal documents to the police. He was aware that monks who had abused were appointed in 2006 and 2007 to the board of governors and board of trustees. He agreed he took no steps to remove them.

Mr Bellenger agreed he wrote two letters in 2016 and 2017 setting out what he felt were the failures at Downside and pointed out that previous Abbots had protected abusers and that 3 abusers were still being harboured by the monastery. He is in the process of leaving the Benedictines.

The deputy Head, Andrew Hobbs, gave evidence that child protection at Downside had not been good enough. He recounted the failed Ofsted inspections of 2010 and 20011 and the steps taken to retrieve the situation. Changes now include better recruitment checks, physical separation between the school and the monks quarters, training for all on safeguarding, and better information sharing. he agreed there was more to do.

“Prior Administrator” Leo Davis gave evidence in an uncertain way. He was a man in his late 60s with white hair. He recounted disastrous dealings with Anselm Hurt and Richard White, both of whom had been known offenders but who were allowed back into the monasteries and into contact with pupils. He agreed publicity was a principal concern and advice from a barrister QC to disclose abuse of Richard White to the police was rejected. An interesting statistic arose that 16 of the 23 monks at Downside had safeguarding complaints lodged against them. He confirmed that RC-F77, another monk against whom a complaint had been lodged, was still living at Downside under a “behaviour covenant”. He had been made a trustee in 2007. RC-F77 breached his covenant in 2012 by walking across the school playing fields and attending a church service which boys attended. Not all parents have been told about his presence on site. Another monk accused of persuading a pupil to give him oral sex was moved from Downside to a parish in Turvey but the monastery didn’t tell Turvey of the risk he posed to children. F Leo denied knowing about Dunstan O’Keefe downloading pornography in spite of a letter from one monk to the Abbott that “We all knew he was downloading images”. An internal note was produced which set out steps to be taken to clear O’Keefe’s position up. The note included the words “destroy hard drive and floppy…computer destroyed…theft”. O’Keefe was even told by the Abbot Richard Yeo to “lie low and keep out sight” at the school. He was in fact allowed to be a novice master and has access to boys.

Most of the evidence we have heard is characterised by a systematic disregard for safeguarding good practice but evidence given by Leo Davis on 12th December 2017 was the height of crass disregard for the law by these monks. Leo David was the headmaster at the time but in July 2012 he set about moving large numbers of documents from the Headmaster’s basement and carting them over the space of 4 days off site in a wheelbarrow through the woods surrounding Downside and burning them. He claimed he didn’t know what they contained. This was two years after the police had asked for documents but felt they had been held back. He agreed the monastery had employed a PR consultant, Tony Domain, to “avoid hazards and advise on what to say to parents”. Leo David agreed he wanted to avoid media interest.

Richard Yeo, the former Abbott of Downside and former Abbott president agreed that the status of priest creates a risk of child abuse by creating an atmosphere where priests feel protected. He confirms that an abuser who was allowed back in to the priesthood, Anselm Hurt, had been a childhood friend of his and that he helped him gain position at Downside. He admitted failing to report Richard White or Dunstan O’Keefe in 2002 after the Nolan report recommended he should. Richard Yeo went on to help the Abbott of Ampleforth to introduce a secret safeguarding code. This had been kept secret from CSAS, the Catholic church’s central safeguarding advisory body.

It appears to have been standard practice for Abbotts and headmasters at Downside to interfere with and try to undermine boys who had complained. There came a point in his evidence where he had described the fact that a complainant was alcoholic and asking his Mother for money as “that little nugget” – as if it would help to defeat the allegation made by the former pupil. Did he not question the root cause of his alcoholism ?

It was put to him that Canon 489 requires a secret archive to be kept for complaints about priests. Yeo said this referred to Bishops and not Religious (the term for heads of religious Orders such as monks, brothers and nuns).

When questioned about the confessional he could not recall if any monk had confessed child abuse to him. He agreed that if a child told him it has experienced sexual abuse in the confessional he would be bound by sanctity of the confessional and would not be able to report it to the police. Overall Richard Yeo came across as extremely evasive and failed to give a straight answer to any of the questions posed.

Adrian Child, former Assistant director of COPCA and CSAS (the national body advising Catholic organisations on safeguarding) gave evidence.

  • He found that not all Dioceses adopted the centrally agreed safeguarding guidance.
  • He had put together a dispute resolution procedure for cases where there was an allegation but no conviction but 50% of dioceses and orders rejected it, including CCIA, the Catholic Insurance office. To quote his evidence “To say ‘my hands are tied or my insurer won’t let me settle the case’ is not moral or adequate”.
  • He criticised the lack of money put into safeguarding.
  • He criticised the seal of the confessional for getting in the way of safeguarding.
  • He described Ampleforth as a microcosm of the Catholic Church.
  • He criticised the fact that safeguarding depended on goodwill between Bishops and Religious leaders.

He summarised by saying that the system needed legislative oversight for all religious bodies, sport, drama, music, etc where children are looked after. Legislation is needed that has teeth and can deliver sanctions for breaches of safeguarding. To quote his words to Professor Jay and panel “Don’t tinker around the edges. We need accountability and mandatory enforcement”.

Claire Winter, The Somerset County Council LADO (“Local Authority Designated Officer”), gave evidence to confirm she was involved with overseeing Downside between 2010 and 2016. She counted allegations against 16 of the 23 monks at Downside.

She recommended a safeguarding audit as the state of record keeping was poor. There were CRB/DBS check missing for staff, records missing and files were separated between school and monastery records.

She found that she couldn’t entirely rely on the Abbott telling her about which monks or priests were a concern. She was not confident that restrictions on monks activities were being monitored. One monk forbidden to have access to the internet was discovered to have unlimited access .

Evidence from Helen Humphries, HM Inspector of Education was heard. She explained the nuts and bolts of school inspections. Kate Richards of the Independent School Inspections body explained the standards the schools should have attained.

I will be working on oral closing submissions with William Chapman and will post a copy once it has been handed in to the Inquiry. A full written submission will be posted here next Friday.

David Greenwood

Wednesday 13th December 2017





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