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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Ampleforth and Downside (English Benedictine Congregation case study) Investigation Report

The English Benedictine Congregation

The Benedictine Confederation and the English Benedictine Congregation: structure in outline

23. This simple outline is intended to provide context to the more detailed analysis of events at Ampleforth and Downside. There is a glossary which gives short explanatory descriptions of relevant bodies and terms at Annex 2.

24. The Benedictine Confederation is a collection of approximately 20 different congregations of Roman Catholic Benedictine monks and nuns, of which the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC) is just one. The congregations are made up of individual autonomous communities of monks under the leadership of their elected abbot (or abbess), who leads the spiritual life of the community and manages its relationships with the wider Catholic Church.[1] The abbot is directly supported by his prior, who deputises for him in his absence and is involved in the day-to-day administration of the monastery, and by his abbot’s council. Each Benedictine congregation has its own abbot president, and the abbot primate is the representative of all the Benedictine congregations in Rome, based in Sant’Anselmo.

25. The English Benedictine Congregation (EBC) is the umbrella term for the comparatively small number of English Benedictine communities[2] that exist worldwide.[3] Like other Benedictine congregations, the EBC follows the Rule of St Benedict, a book of precepts written by St Benedict of Nursia in the early 6th century that establishes a way of life based upon the teachings and values of the Gospel. This, together with the constitutions of the EBC, determine how an EBC monastery should be run and how it should operate within the wider English Benedictine community.[4]

26. Although there are many Benedictine communities in England and Wales, only 10 of these are ‘English Benedictine’ communities. These 10 are all situated in England. Seven of them house monks: Downside, Ampleforth, Douai, Belmont, Ealing, Buckfast and Worth. Three house nuns: Stanbrook, Curzon Park and Colwich. There was an EBC monastery and associated school in Scotland at Fort Augustus,[5] but the school closed in 1993 and the Abbey in 1998. Downside is one of the smallest of the existing EBC communities in England and houses fewer than 20 monks. The largest is Ampleforth, which presently houses approximately 60 to 70 monks.[6] There are affiliated congregations in Europe, the United States, Peru and Zimbabwe,[7] which members of the monasteries visit from time to time, and associated parishes where monks may assist, for example, by carrying out the functions of the parish priest.

27. The EBC, as a congregation within the Catholic Church, has its own General Chapter, which is a meeting or assembly of representatives from each of the monasteries. The General Chapter acts as the governing body of the whole congregation and writes the constitutions (or laws) which govern all its monasteries.[8] Dom Richard Yeo, both formerly abbot of Downside and abbot president of the EBC, told us that ‘it would be rare for the General Chapter to make a law applying just to one individual monastery. That would only happen … if that monastery was causing serious concern.’

28. The General Chapter is made up of the abbot president who is the leader of the EBC, an abbot or abbess from each monastery, a delegate elected by the monastery’s own chapter, and four officials of the EBC. They have ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ meetings (or chapters). Ordinary chapters are held every four years, and extraordinary chapters are held in times of need. The last extraordinary chapter was held in 2015.[9]

29. The EBC abbot president is elected every four years from the pool of ruling EBC abbots. As the most senior figure he prepares and runs the General Chapter with the help of his Council.[10] Dom Richard Yeo was abbot president from 2001 to 2017. The current abbot president is Dom Christopher Jamieson, former abbot of Worth Abbey.

30. The EBC is not pyramidical in structure but is ‘almost entirely flat’.[11] As Dom Richard Yeo told us, this ‘can probably be frustrating for people who expect a clear structured hierarchy’. The monasteries are autonomous, and each individual abbot or abbess has overarching responsibility for his or her own monastery and the monks or nuns associated with them. Because of this ‘the General Chapter has less authority than would be expected in the General Chapter of a centralised order’.

31. The wider EBC provides ‘an independent check’ on English Benedictine monasteries, and will offer assistance, advice and guidance when sought,[12] but the abbot president is limited in his power.[13] His formal role is to preside over the elections of abbots and abbesses, and to undertake ‘visitations’, a form of inspection of the individual monasteries conducted with the help of his assistants (co-visitors). He will also provide advice to any abbot who wishes to consult him[14] but Dom Richard Yeo, emphasising the autonomy of the individual monasteries, told us: ‘the Abbot President cannot run a monastery. [He] has to ensure that the monastery is well run … he cannot intervene and control things himself. What he can do, if he thinks things are being badly mismanaged, is to conduct a visitation to try to put things right.’[15]

32. Visitations take place approximately every four years, between each General Chapter. They have been described to us by Dom Richard as being something like an audit, the most important part of which is ‘the quality of the spiritual life of the monastery’. During the visitation, the abbot president’s formal role is ‘to ensure that the law of the Church, the Rule and the constitutions are being observed’.[16] The length of the visitation will depend on the size of the monastery. ‘The formal purpose of the visitation is to pick up any failure to follow the Rule of St Benedict, the constitutions of the congregation or the law of the church.’ However, in doing this the abbot president is reliant on being informed of failures within a monastery.[17]

33. During a visitation, he will observe how the monastery is working and will have an opportunity to ask questions of any resident or individual on any topic concerning the life and running of the monastery.[18] Generally all members of the community, including the abbot and any lay members with integral roles, such as a lay headmaster, are interviewed.[19] Findings are conveyed to the abbot of the monastery and to his Council, and a report is provided to the whole community.[20] At the conclusion of the visitation the abbot president can advise, give directions or recommendations, encourage or warn the monastery of the findings.[21] The abbot president and his co-visitor can require change if they find significant failures, but it is only seldom that an Act of Visitation (a decree requiring something to be done) will be made. Six months after every visitation, the abbot president makes enquiries to ensure that any requirements resulting from his visitation have been, or are being, implemented. Since 2013, the abbot president may enquire into the adequacy of safeguarding in the individual monasteries visited and is now required to commission an independent report into safeguarding provisions at the monastery.[22]

34. Although visitations are commonly four years apart, Dom Richard Yeo told us that as abbot president his practice was to periodically make other visits to the monasteries.[23] During the past four years the EBC has started a system where the visitor returns to the monastery six months after a visitation for what is essentially a progress update. In times of grave need, extraordinary visitations outside the four-year period may be made.

35. An Apostolic visitation is different in that it is ordered by the Holy See, which will appoint visitors to investigate a situation and then report back to Rome.

36. Once a year the abbot president of the EBC meets with the abbot primate in order both to give and receive advice. However, the abbot primate would not seek to involve himself in any matter without being asked to do so by the abbot president.[24]

37. The relationship between the Holy See and the individual monasteries is limited. The Holy See is made up of a number of bodies which together regulate the conduct of the Church generally, but those which have immediate relevance to the monasteries and to this Inquiry are:

  1. the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL), which among other things deals with complaints about the general conduct of monastic life in a monastery or of an individual monk and
  2. the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which is specifically tasked with the investigation of cases of child sexual abuse and the juridical resolution of such cases, and has the ability to expedite the process of laicising a monk when it makes a finding against him.[25]

38. As far as the schools affiliated with the monasteries are concerned, these are governed by their own boards of governors and the abbot president has no formal role in the schools, their governance, or their safeguarding arrangements. We have been told that he ‘can encourage’,[26] but it is not clear precisely what this encouragement entails. The wider EBC exercises no authority over the schools, and the schools have no formal relationship with the Holy See.

39. There is no centralised system of record keeping within the EBC. Dom Richard Yeo told us that he could not ‘see the value of having centralised records’, and he expressed the view that it was the responsibility of individual monasteries to keep records and to have liaison with the Safeguarding Commission.[27] If a monk wishes to transfer membership to another Benedictine monastery, the consent of both abbots or abbesses and the chapter of the monastery is required.[28] The abbot president is unlikely to be involved or informed of a transfer as the monk remains a member of his community and is the responsibility of his abbot. (This is unless it is a large group of monks that is transferred, which is unusual, and would be likely to result in the abbot president being told.) Instead he relies on the individual monasteries to deal with these transfers. Dom Richard told us that the abbots of the two monasteries should discuss and share information about the monk, but the information that is actually given is wholly dependent upon what, and how much, the sending abbot chooses to divulge.[29] Such disclosure therefore depends on his own personal judgement.

40. Dom Richard Yeo told us that in such situations ‘the right thing to do’ would be for the abbot of one institution to be quite frank with the abbot receiving his monk about any issues.[30] But we also heard that this did not always happen in practice.

41. Similarly, the decision to report concerns about a monk’s activities to the police lies with their individual abbots, who are given no advice or direction by the abbot president or EBC about when and in what circumstances this should happen. Dom Richard told us that it was not thought necessary as that would be dealt with by national policies.[31]

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