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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

F.4: Charity Commission

26. The Charity Commission is a statutory body which regulates charities in England and Wales. Among other things it has powers to investigate, identify and take action in respect of misconduct or mismanagement in the administration of charities. If a statutory inquiry has been opened, it may suspend or remove trustees or appoint an interim manager.[1]

27. Trustees of a charity have a duty of care to safeguard those who come into contact with the charity and its work, and the Charity Commission will therefore consider any failures of trustees in respect of safeguarding to be a regulatory concern. Such failings may result in the Commission exercising its statutory powers to seek to remedy the situation.[2] In respect of Ealing Abbey, the most significant steps taken by the Charity Commission were to undertake two statutory inquiries. The first opened in July 2006 but, before its report was published, a second was opened in February 2008. A combined report was finally published in December 2009.

28. The first inquiry (from 2006 to 2009) was opened following concerns of child sexual abuse being brought to its attention anonymously in June 2006 in respect of Pearce and RC-F41.[3] Its purpose was to establish whether the trustees had taken appropriate action and what further steps were required, if any.[4] In particular, it considered whether “the trustees were taking appropriate and sufficient steps to safeguard vulnerable beneficiaries at the school (ie the pupils of St Benedict’s).[5] It concluded that appropriate steps were being taken and no further action was necessary.[6] In fact, Pearce was abusing a pupil of St Benedict’s, RC-A621, at the time of this first inquiry.

29. The Charity Commission’s conclusion that appropriate steps were being taken was based on little more than assurances given by Ealing Abbey that there were restrictions on Pearce, precluding access to children. The Commission did not seek to identify in any detail what those restrictions were, nor did it consider how they were being implemented or how compliance was being monitored.[7] Michelle Russell, Head of Compliance at the Charity Commission between 2007 and 2011, told us that this reliance on the assurances of charity trustees “was the approach that was taken by the Commission generally as a regulator at that time”.[8] The Charity Commission also found that the school’s child protection policies and procedures were adequate. This again appears to be in part based on the Trust’s assertion in correspondence that they were.[9] Relying on assurances given by a body under investigation can never be a sufficient substitute for independent scrutiny.

30. In 2008, the Charity Commission opened a second inquiry, after it was notified of the arrest of Pearce for sexual abuse of RC-A621. It was only during this second inquiry that the Charity Commission considered the restrictions placed on Pearce. It concluded:

Despite assurances from the trustees, they failed to implement the restrictions placed on [Pearce] whilst on Charity premises and the Commission is extremely critical of the trustees in this regard. One of the terms of [Pearce’s] continued role in the Charity was that he was to have no access to children and young people on the Charity’s premises the trustees failed to ensure this was the case … [10]

This admonishment was, Ms Russell says, “quite unusual language for us to say publicly”.[11] Despite this criticism, no further regulatory action was taken.

31. A further point is that, during this second inquiry, Charity Commission correspondence risked suggesting that protecting the charity’s name required contesting allegations of abuse as a matter of course. For example, a senior compliance and support manager stated in a letter of May 2008:[12]

A charity’s reputation is one of its biggest assets. As such, we would expect the trustees to take measures to protect the reputation of the Charity in the future. As a minimum, we would expect the trustees to monitor carefully the outcome of any criminal investigation or prosecution or civil claim into Father Pearce or any other person involved with the Charity in a similar capacity and to take appropriate steps to protect the Charity’s name and reputation as necessary. We would also expect the Charity to take reasonable steps to defend its name and reputation if any charges or proceedings were initiated against the Charity. If such a situation were to arise, I would suggest that you contact the Commission for advice.

This letter, and the penultimate sentence in particular, could give the impression that defending reputation was more important than protecting children from abuse. While she said this was not the Commission’s intention, Ms Russell agreed that there was a risk that it might be read that way, and that it was something for the Commission to reflect on.[13]

32. Beyond providing “regulatory advice and guidance”,[14] the Charity Commission relied in its report upon the fact that Ealing Abbey was undertaking “an independent review”. It requested a copy of this review, and said it would “actively monitor the Charity to ensure that this happens”.[15]

33. The independent review referred to was that undertaken by Philip Wright and John Nixson in 2009. As discussed in Part D, that review was wholly inadequate. Its deficiencies were pointed out to the Charity Commission in 2010 by Mr Jonathan West,[16] to whom the Commission responded in December 2010:

The independent review that the trustees confirmed would be carried out is a matter for the Charity. The Commission cannot intervene in the administration of a charity.[17]

However no reference was made in this letter to the possibility, in certain circumstances, of the Commission appointing an interim manager.

34. By December 2010, Lord Carlile’s review had been commissioned following the concerns raised by the ISI and DfE. It was the response of those institutions, rather than of the Charity Commission, that precipitated real change in structure and approach at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s.

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