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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

D.2: 1970 to 2000

2. Between 1970 and 2000, extensive child sexual abuse was perpetrated by monks and teachers at St Benedict’s, in particular by Soper, Pearce and John Maestri. Much of this abuse was known or suspected by other monks, teachers and staff, yet almost nothing was done.

Response to Pearce’s abuse

3. There was widespread awareness and gossip among pupils, staff and monks that Pearce behaved inappropriately towards a number of boys at St Benedict’s.

3.1. RC-A645, a pupil at the middle school in the late 1970s, said:

“[Pearce] was known throughout the school as ‘gay Dave’. This was how he was referred to by literally all the children, he was known universally by this moniker. He seemed actually to revel in this description. His general technique was to be constantly moving his hand over some part of your body; the shoulder, the leg, the thigh. It was generally quite subtle; he would touch you and his hands would linger on your flesh for just a little too long.[1]

3.2. Father James Leachman, monk and teacher, referred to there being, in the 1980s, “gossip about him touching children in the showers and photographing them”.[2]

3.3. Katherine Ravenscroft, who joined the school as a teacher in 1990, told the Inquiry that it was common knowledge among staff that there were rumours about Pearce.[3] She noted:

It was spoken about quite freely amongst the boys in the school that Father David Pearce would oversee swimming whilst they were in the Junior school and that he would line the boys up naked after swimming to feel them in order to check that they were dry.[4]

3.4. Father Timothy Gorham, another monk who taught at the school, recalled pupils talking in 1995 about Pearce saying things like “Sit on my lap little boy”. He said “these things were already mentioned amongst the monks at the abbey. I think everybody knew about it.[5]

4. Abbot Shipperlee has accepted that he knew of at least some gossip in the 1980s and of “recurrent stories” about Pearce. He told us:

I am aware that certainly, by the time I arrived in the junior school the story of the filming or stories of the filming were referred to.[6]

It is, however, clear that the filming was not the only aspect of Pearce’s abuse that was known, as a number of teachers raised concerns internally about his behaviour, without any result.

5. Peter Halsall, a teacher at St Benedict’s for 40 years, “made complaints about both PEARCE and MAESTRI but they didn’t go anywhere and it definitely harmed my career. At times it felt like the mafia, like ramming your head against a brick wall.[7] He also said:

effectively Soper and Pearce held sway in the Abbey and school and it is my belief they colluded to block any investigation by Tony Dachs. There was no one anyone could complain to until Soper resigned as Abbot.[8]

Mr Halsall also spoke at one stage to a former pupil, then a fairly senior police officer, who said that “unless ex pupils were willing to come forward nothing could be done.[9]

6. Ms Ravenscroft said that “if anybody complained or said anything about PEARCE, Laurence SOPER would protect him … to complain meant putting your job on the line”.[10]

7. There were monks who raised concerns internally, but who found no support before 2000. In 1999, Father Alban Nunn and other monks in the Abbey (Father Andrew Hughes and Father Thomas Stapleford) were “all very concerned about the way these complaints were being dealt with”.[11] This was not revealed to police until 2017, when Father Nunn spoke to them and told them that he felt Soper as abbot and Soper’s Council (upon which the abbot relied for advice, and on which both Pearce and Father Shipperlee sat[12]) had not dealt with the problem properly and that Soper and the Council should have gone to the police.[13]

8. Accountability for inaction primarily rests on those in charge during this period. They were the Abbots of Ealing Abbey (Francis Rossiter and Soper) and the headmasters of St Benedict’s (Father George Brown, Father Anthony Gee and Dr Anthony Dachs).

9. We did not hear any evidence directly from Dom Rossiter, Abbot from 1967 to 1991, who was too infirm to provide a statement to the Inquiry. However, his approach can be seen in a letter written in 2001, when as Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC), he responded to serious concerns about Pearce raised by a monk at Ealing Abbey, Father Peter Burns. Abbot Rossiter warned Father Burns, saying:

someone’s good name is at stake, hence one needs substantial evidence. Remarks passed by third parties … would to my mind be wholly insufficient information to pass on to officials outside the monastery.[14]

He also denied knowing of any concerns about Pearce in the period to 1991, saying “When I left office in 1991 [Pearce] was doing a good job as Headmaster and I had no complaints about him from anyone”. He must at the very least have known of concerns about Pearce.

10. The next Abbot of Ealing Abbey was Soper. In June 1992, when RC-A595 complained to police that Pearce had abused him in his study, Soper responded by giving Pearce his “full support as headmaster”. He did not suspend him and said that this was:

partly because the timing of the allegation in my eyes and the eyes of those I consulted, appeared to be a smokescreen for the alleged activity of the father and partly since Father David has been in the community for 22 years at least 16 of them as a school teacher in the senior or junior schools without any allegation of impropriety of any sort against him.[15]

As set out above, there was widespread awareness that Pearce was acting improperly towards boys. It is not clear whether the decision to replace Pearce as head of the junior school in 1993 was because of this incident, but that move did not prevent Pearce from continuing to have unrestricted access to pupils. He was able to move around the school as he wished. We were told that he was known to have pupils come to his office on a Friday afternoon, when he would shut the door and cover its glass window with paper so nobody could see in.[16] When, in 1998, the parents of RC-A631 complained of sexual abuse by Pearce, Soper again did not challenge him about his behaviour.[17] It seems clear that, as Abbot, Soper protected Pearce from further scrutiny.

11. Dr Dachs was the lay headmaster of St Benedict’s senior school between 1986 and 2002. During this time Pearce was head of the separate junior school. As such, Pearce was not under Dr Dachs authority, however like Abbot Rossiter and Soper, Dr Dachs was aware of the complaints about Pearce. For example, on 19 October 1998, the parents of RC-A631 complained by letter to him.[18] Dr Dachs did not raise those concerns with any external authority.

12. Harsha Mortemore, senior accounts assistant at St Benedict’s, stated that when she raised her concerns with Dr Dachs he warned her “If you know what’s good for you, keep your head down and do your job.[19] Dr Dachs has denied this.

13. Father Shipperlee replaced Pearce as headmaster of the junior school in 1992 and was a member of the Abbot’s Council, before becoming Abbot. He admitted that he had been aware of ongoing concerns in respect of Pearce, including the fact that as bursar Pearce continued to have contact with children at the school, but he did nothing.[20] He gave us two answers to why he did not complain. First he said “Now, obviously, I can/could have complained. But at this stage, I’m aware of a lot of stories about him … ”,[21] the suggestion being that “stories were not enough. Later in his evidence to us, Abbot Shipperlee said that he did not raise concerns when he was head of the junior school “Because by that stage [Pearce] is now out of well, he is out of the school.[22]

14. Pearce should not have been allowed to remain bursar or to retain an office in the school which enabled him to continue to come into contact with pupils.

Response to Soper’s abuse

15. Much of the abuse perpetrated by Soper was committed under the pretext of corporal punishment. His predilection for physical chastisement was well known by boys and staff.

15.1. Mr Halsall said that he heard boys:

talking about being caned and that Laurence would offer them six with the cane with trousers on but three on their bare backside with trousers off … I heard the boys talking about ‘PD’, which was the ‘pants down’ policy expounded by Laurence”.[23]

15.2. Leo Hopley, a parent of a boy at St Benedict’s during the late 1970s and a teacher at St Benedict’s in the 1980s, told police in 2018 that in the 1970s:

Several of the parents told me that Laurence would offer the boys six strokes with their pants up or 3 strokes on their bare backsides. I thought this was rather deviant, but I thought it was for those parents to make a complaint and I thought that ‘the higher ups’ at the school and the Abbey would deal with it.[24]

15.3. Father Gee was the headmaster while Soper was teaching at St Benedict’s, from 1973 to 1984. He told the police that:

A member of staff … approached me and stated that Soper had resumed the ‘old tradition of ‘PD’ or pants down. This was apparently having the boys pull down their pants to be beaten on their bare behinds. This apparently had been the policy of the monks at Downside to ensure boys hadn’t put a book down their trousers … I spoke to Soper and told him that he must stop doing this, he agreed to do so … At the time I think that I was rather naive and whilst I thought what SOPER was doing was very unpleasant and humiliating, it never occurred to me that it was sexual. In hindsight I now wonder.[25]

16. Corporal punishment involving ‘pants down’ was unacceptable and should have signalled to staff that there may have been a sexual element.

17. Dr Dachs told the police that the use of corporal punishment was terminated when he became headmaster in 1986.[26]

Response to abuse by others

18. In 1984, Maestri became head of the middle school. Shortly afterwards, RC-A626 complained that Maestri had abused him during tuition at Maestri’s flat. Abbot Rossiter went to meet RC-A626’s parents, and later recalled to the police:

I remember being relieved that the incident wasn’t more serious, I think it involved cuddling or something of that nature. If it had been more serious I think I would have remembered what it was.[27]

No investigation was undertaken to identify other victims. The authorities were not informed. Abbot Rossiter told Maestri that it was not possible for him to remain at the school (although he did not leave immediately).[28] The school magazine stated that he tendered resignation due to ill health.[29] Abbot Rossiter subsequently wrote a testimonial in support of his obtaining a further teaching position.[30]

19. There was a similar response to another lay teacher, Stephen Skelton. The parents of RC-A604 informed the school that he had sexually abused their son. They apparently received a letter from someone at the school but were not happy with the response and so a meeting was arranged with Abbot Rossiter and RC-F41 (Dom Rossiter, who was too unwell to attend our hearing, has said that he has no recollection of this). They were told that RC-A604 would be removed from Skelton’s class and that the matter would be dealt with. Skelton did leave, but not immediately.[31] Skelton told police that the reason for his departure was because his year’s probation was up.[32] He too was given a reference (he could not recall by whom)[33] and again no report was made to the authorities. Skelton obtained a position at another school and in the 1990s he went on to abuse a boy who was a pupil at a school in Hampshire, for which he was convicted.[34]

20. The action taken against Maestri and Skelton was inadequate. Although both were made to leave the school, no report was made to external authorities and references were provided. This was a blatant failure to consider the risk to other children. Maestri and Skelton were therefore free to abuse elsewhere, and Skelton did so. It is notable that when the perpetrators were lay teachers they were forced to leave St Benedict’s, but this did not happen when the perpetrators were monks.

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