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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Roman Catholic Church (EBC) Case Study: Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School Investigation Report

Executive Summary

Ealing Abbey is an English Benedictine monastery, established in 1897 by monks from Downside Abbey. Ealing Priory, as it was then called, became independent from Downside in 1947. Eight years later it achieved Abbey status, becoming the first Benedictine Abbey in Greater London since the Reformation. The monastery is home to 14 monks who live under the care of the Abbot, the spiritual leader of the community. The Abbot is assisted by his Prior, who acts as his principal adviser, and by his Council.

St Benedict’s School, Ealing is the only Benedictine day school in England and is situated adjacent to Ealing Abbey. Although it started as a boys’ school, it became fully co-educational in 2008 and accepts children from nursery age to 18 years old. The junior and senior schools (the middle school having been absorbed some years ago) have their own headmasters, although since 2006 the headmaster of the senior school has overarching responsibility for the junior school. The number of monks teaching at the school has varied over the years from nine in 1980 to just one in 2018, and none now, in 2019. As well as serving as teachers, monks act as chaplains and lead religious services.

Child sexual abuse at St Benedict’s School was extensive. Since 2003, two monks (Laurence Soper and David Pearce) and two lay teachers (John Maestri and Stephen Skelton) have been convicted of multiple offences involving the sexual abuse of over 20 children between at least the 1970s and 2008. In 2016 another teacher, the deputy head Peter Allott, was convicted of offences relating to the possession of indecent images of children. We have also received evidence of at least 18 further allegations against these men and eight other monks and teachers. Material we have seen suggests that the number of complainants is likely to be higher than the figures set out here.

The St Benedict’s School of the 1970s was described to us as a “Cold, grim, forbidding” and “beastly” place.[1] The atmosphere was sadistic and predatory, and we heard that for many children “coming to school was terrible”.[2] There was a culture of excessive corporal punishment. Physical abuse in many cases was used as a platform for sexual gratification, and a means by which to instigate sexual abuse. Corporal punishment was also used to punish boys who sought to protect themselves and others from sexual abuse, such as RC-A8.

Laurence Soper and David Pearce

A particularly startling aspect of the sexual abuse perpetrated at the school was that very senior figures at the school or Abbey were abusers. David Pearce was the head of the junior school and then bursar; Laurence Soper was head of the middle school, bursar, Prior then Abbot. This created particular problems for those who wished to report sexual abuse – not only the victims, but also others, such as members of staff who heard rumours or observed behaviour that caused concern. Reporting such matters was therefore made more difficult by the seniority of those against whom the complaint would have been made. Staff members have described the atmosphere as feeling “like the mafia” and chose not to risk their jobs.[3]

Pearce was a serial abuser of boys. At least 14 pupils have complained to the statutory authorities of being sexually abused by him. Their allegations span a 32-year period from 1976 to 2008. In October 2009, Pearce was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment (reduced to five years on appeal in May 2010) for various sexual offences against five of these pupils. That was not the end of the matter, however, and in 2011 Pearce faced a further trial relating to indecent assaults against another pupil but was acquitted. In relation to the eight other boys, there was either no complaint made to the police or a decision made by the police/Crown Prosecution Service not to proceed.

It appears that many in the school and Abbey – teachers and monks alike – were aware of Pearce’s behaviour but were seemingly powerless to do anything about it. Gossip amongst the boys and staff was rife and complaints, including from parents, failed to trigger any action by the school or, in the rare event that information was communicated externally, by the statutory authorities. Staff were afraid that by speaking up they would lose their jobs. Pearce may well have been emboldened by this inertia as his abuse became less secretive, filming the boys at the swimming pool, lining them up naked and committing sexual assaults with apparent impunity. Unsurprisingly, Pearce was protected by Soper, but other Abbots and headmasters throughout this period also failed to act to protect children under their care.

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. Soper’s predilection for caning boys was well known amongst the boys and staff at the school. He was told to stop by a previous headmaster at some point in the late 1970s or early 1980s. This had no effect, and he continued to cane and sexually assault boys on many occasions.

His campaign of sexual abuse was allowed to continue because of the inaction of those who had the power to do something to stop it or bring him to justice. 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 sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment – over 40 years had elapsed since his offending began.

The role of Abbots

There were significant opportunities to stop abusers in the school which were not acted upon. When Abbot Martin Shipperlee took over as Abbot from Soper in 2000, many were hopeful that a “new broom[4] had arrived. Indeed, some improvements to child protection were made. He commissioned a number of independent reports from experts.

David Tregaskis, a clinical criminologist with extensive experience of providing risk assessments, provided a report about the risk Pearce posed to children. He concluded that there was a “major concern” and “clear boundaries” should be placed upon him.[5] Although restrictions were placed upon Pearce, they were not monitored properly. In 2006, the sexual abuse committed by Pearce was established in a civil trial brought by one of his victims. Mr Justice Field said he found Pearce’s account “extremely unconvincing[6] and the allegations were found proven. There were no changes to the restrictions already placed upon Pearce, although there could have been no doubt about the risk he posed. In the same year as the civil trial, Pearce started to sexually abuse a 16-year-old boy who was working in the monastery.

There were also limitations to the advice Abbot Shipperlee received from the Diocese of Westminster Child Protection Team. In particular, the advice provided in respect of imposing restrictions upon Pearce and others failed to give any guidance on how compliance with those restrictions should be enforced and monitored. The Child Protection Officer failed to keep the risk posed by Pearce and the restrictions in place under review, particularly following the successful civil claim. Pearce should have been required to leave Ealing Abbey – particularly given its proximity to the school.

When Pearce was convicted in 2009, Abbot Shipperlee commissioned a further review by Philip Wright, the safeguarding coordinator for the diocese of Brighton and Arundel and John Nixson, an independent child protection specialist. Despite the mounting child protection concerns against Soper and another monk, the review was confined to Pearce. There was no consideration of the underlying material. The whole exercise was limited to two days’ work. John Nixson in his written evidence to the Inquiry stated: “with the benefit of further reflection, it is now evident to me that Abbot Martin presented the existing concerns and findings about individual members of the religious community in a minimal manner”.[7]

The Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation in the period from 2001 to 2017, Dom Richard Yeo, did not significantly contribute to the response of Ealing Abbey to the allegations of child sexual abuse made in that period. During his 2007 Visitation he did not inquire into the restrictions upon Pearce and gave no consideration to issues of risk management. In his report to the monastic community, there was no express recognition of the fact that the judge in the civil proceedings in 2006 had found Pearce to be an unconvincing witness. He conceded that, in retrospect:

“I should probably have suggested at the 2007 Visitation that it was too serious a risk to allow ... Pearce to continue to live in the monastery”.[8]

Throughout this time, public pressure was mounting. A series of articles appeared in The Times, the Charity Commission published a critical report, public disquiet gained momentum through Jonathan West’s blog, the Independent Schools Inspectorate had published a follow-up report which was critical of Trustees, and the Minister of State for Schools was seeking “assurance that all ISI’s recommendations will be implemented”.[9]

In the light of these pressures, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC was commissioned in 2010 to prepare a report. Abbot Shipperlee submitted five principles for reform which Lord Carlile accepted. He firmly stated, however, that reforms could not take place under the auspices of a single trust and recommended the creation of two separate charitable trusts – in effect separating the school from the Abbey. St Benedict’s School became truly independent of Ealing Abbey on 1 September 2012.

During the Inquiry’s investigation into Ealing Abbey, Abbot Shipperlee resigned. He admitted to the Inquiry “as has been serially revealed, my administration of safeguarding is of insufficient standard”.[10]

The role of headmasters

Headmasters as well as Abbots played a significant role in managing child protection issues. Christopher Cleugh, during his time as headmaster of the school between 2002 and 2016, repeatedly minimised questions of child sexual abuse to teachers and to external institutions and parents, to the point of materially misrepresenting significant facts. Although he told the Independent Schools Inspectorate that one of the monks had been charged with an assault on a pupil doing work experience in the monastery, he did not tell them that Pearce had been under restrictions at the time, nor did he tell them about the successful civil action against Pearce. He did not address safeguarding issues openly and proactively; when answers were given, he was defensive. One former teacher, Peter Halsall, said the previous culture of cover-up and denial at the school was “followed … by passing the buck”.[11]

Andrew Johnson, who was appointed headmaster in 2016, described a number of improvements to safeguarding, including record-keeping and vetting, compulsory reporting to Ealing Social Services, safeguarding training for staff, information for students and parents, and the operation of the safeguarding sub-committee. He also outlined that he had commissioned an audit report from Philip Threlfall, an independent safeguarding consultant, who concluded that the school was committed to safeguarding and that the “right things are in place”.[12] In order for these changes to have a long-term impact, it will now be for those in responsibility at the school to remain vigilant so as to ensure that safeguarding remains a priority.

The role of external agencies

The Metropolitan Police made mistakes in how some of the early allegations against Pearce and Soper were investigated. For example, in 2001, one of the victims told the police that Pearce had forcibly grabbed his trousers and pants and looked down into his pants, and that Pearce had put his hands down the swimming trunks of another boy, “for a couple of seconds having a feel around”.[13] In July 2002, the police decided to take that case no further, the investigating officer concluding “I have been unable to find evidence of any criminal offences”.[14] This approach was unreasonable. Commander Neil Jerome, in his evidence to us, agreed. There were also failures in respect of the investigation into the allegations against Pearce in respect of another boy, including a failure to provide all relevant information to the Crown Prosecution Service when a prosecution decision was sought.

The Crown Prosecution Service shares some responsibility for the fact that neither Pearce nor Soper were prosecuted in 2004, when serious allegations were made by two victims against them. It was not until 2009 and 2017 that Pearce and Soper were convicted of the abuse. In the Crown Prosecution Service decision regarding one victim’s allegations against Pearce, the reviewing lawyer wrongly adopted a requirement for corroboration. Likewise, in the decision concerning another victim’s allegations against Soper, the Crown Prosecution Service lawyer took the view that a victim’s word against a perpetrator was insufficient to found a prosecution instead of considering whether the victim’s account could be supported by other evidence or whether Soper’s account could be undermined.

There were also deficiencies in the consideration of the situation at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School by those external bodies charged with regulating the management of charities (the Charity Commission) and inspecting independent schools (the Independent Schools Inspectorate). The Charity Commission was undertaking a statutory inquiry into Ealing Abbey’s handling of Pearce at the very time when he was committing further child sexual abuse. The Commission’s conclusion at the time, that appropriate steps were being taken, was based on assurances given by Ealing Abbey, which were not scrutinised or tested. Likewise, the Independent Schools Inspectorate oversaw an inspection in 2009 which concluded that the child protection policy was compliant with statutory guidance, and that an independent review into Pearce’s offending had been conducted and its advice fully implemented: both conclusions were wrong. The 2009 report was withdrawn in April 2010 and an unannounced, non-routine further inspection was carried out, resulting in a critical report of August 2010. But for the fact that members of the public drew the deficiencies of the 2009 report to the Commission’s attention, there may have been no such rectification of the position.

It is notable that in 2010 the Department for Education did not have the statutory power to enforce a recommendation made by the Independent Schools Inspectorate to the effect that monks who had been the subject of allegations should not reside at Ealing Abbey. As a result, the Minister for Schools wrote to the Charity Commission in October 2010 to see if the Charity Commission might be able to use its powers to enforce compliance in this regard. The position is now different. From January 2015 changes to the statutory standards by which independent schools are judged have rectified this gap in the Department’s powers.

The role of the Holy See

Prior to the hearing, the Inquiry sought a witness statement and documentation from the Holy See, initially through a voluntary request to its diplomatic representative in the United Kingdom, the Apostolic Nuncio, who is covered by diplomatic immunity. The request included asking what steps were taken after Soper’s disappearance that might have assisted in locating him. The Holy See has confirmed that it does not intend to provide a witness statement but has provided some documentation which is being reviewed and may be considered further, if necessary, during the hearings we are holding in October and November 2019.

Recommendations

This report on the Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s School case study forms part of the Inquiry’s wider investigation into the Roman Catholic Church. As part of that investigation, as set out above, there will be a hearing in late 2019 following which a further report including any recommendations will be published.

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