Skip to main content

IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

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

Executive summary

There are 10 English Benedictine Congregation (EBC) monasteries in England and none in Wales. Some of the abbeys have schools associated with them, including Ampleforth and Downside. Both are regarded as leading Catholic independent schools, each with acknowledged academic and sporting achievement, and both are now co-educational.

The EBC is not pyramidical in structure; it has no recognisable line management oversight. Each abbot or abbess has responsibility for their own community, which is autonomous. Nor does the monastic order fit neatly into the Catholic diocesan structure, meaning that the relationship to a diocesan bishop is usually collaborative rather than hierarchical.

It is difficult to describe the appalling sexual abuse inflicted over decades on children aged as young as seven at Ampleforth School, and 11 at Downside School.

Ten individuals, mostly monks, connected to these two institutions have been convicted or cautioned in relation to offences involving sexual activity with a large number of children, or offences concerning pornography. The true scale of the abuse however is likely to be considerably higher. Some examples of the abuse are set out below.

Piers Grant-Ferris was convicted of 20 counts of indecent assault against 15 boys who attended the junior school at Ampleforth. A victim of Piers Grant-Ferris described how he had made him remove his clothes in the confessional of the chapel, then beat his bare bottom. Another incident took place in a bathroom when he was forced to strip naked and to place his hands and feet on each side of a bathtub, so he was straddling the bath, with his genitals hanging down. He was then beaten on his bare bottom, an event he found ‘absolutely terrifying’. During these repeated beatings, Grant-Ferris would masturbate.

One man, whose alleged victims appear to have been aged between eight and 12 years, would give and receive oral sex, both privately and in front of other pupils in the Ampleforth school workshop. He was said to have abused at least 11 children over a sustained period of time but died before the police investigated. Statements given to the police indicate that the alleged abuse consisted of mutual masturbation, digital penetration of the anus, oral sex and forcing children to perform sex acts on each other.

One monk, Nicholas White, sexually abused a number of boys over several years, while he was a geography teacher in Downside’s junior school.

In addition, there have been allegations of a wide spectrum of physical abuse, much of which had sadistic and sexual overtones. One victim, from the 1960s, described his abuser at Ampleforth as ‘an out-and-out sadist’ who would regularly beat boys in front of each other and would ‘beat me for no reason at all’.

Many perpetrators did not hide their sexual interests from the children. At Ampleforth, this included communal activities both outdoors and indoors where there was fondling of children, mutual masturbation and group masturbation. Participation was encouraged and sometimes demanded. The blatant openness of these activities demonstrates there was a culture of acceptance of abusive behaviour.

In 2001, the Nolan Report made recommendations on how the Catholic Church should deal with the safeguarding of children. This was a turning point in the Church’s policy. The Nolan Report clearly set out the agenda for change, which was based on taking a unified approach across the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, to be adopted by bishops, their dioceses and religious orders. The report further recommended they should all work together to develop and implement a single set of arrangements nationally. In 2007, the Cumberlege Review endorsed this.

The Nolan Report in 2001 recommended that incidents or allegations of sexual abuse should be referred to the statutory authorities who must be given full cooperation. At Ampleforth and Downside, a number of allegations were never referred to the police but were handled internally. On occasion, abbots saw fit to set up their own procedures, contrary to the Nolan Report, despite the fact that they lacked expertise in child protection and risk assessment.

By 2002/3 the Catholic Church had appointed diocesan safeguarding officers who were expected to be involved in handling any allegations or disclosures. There was hostility to the Nolan Report in both institutions for some time after its formal adoption. They seemed to take a view that its implementation was neither obligatory nor desirable. This failure to comply appeared to go unchallenged by the Catholic Church.

In Ampleforth and Downside, any move to change or develop safeguarding practices was unduly dependent on the attitude and leadership of the abbot. For example, in Ampleforth, Abbot Timothy Wright held strong views about child sexual abuse allegations which amounted to a repudiation of the Nolan recommendations. Although he initially appeared to engage with the recommendations, in essence, he wanted nothing to do with their implementation. He clung to outdated beliefs about ‘paedophilia’ and had an immovable attitude of always knowing best. For much of the time under consideration by the Inquiry, the overriding concern in both Ampleforth and Downside was to avoid contact with the local authority or the police at all costs, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged abuse or actual knowledge of its occurrence.

Rather than refer a suspected perpetrator to the police, in several instances the abbots in both places would confine the individual to the abbey or transfer him and the known risk to a parish or other location. On occasions, the recipient of the erring monk would not be adequately informed of the risk, with the result that constraints on access to children were not fully enforced. Some children were abused as a consequence.

The ‘confinement’ of monks to the abbey, as a precautionary measure, had some merit, but it was no substitute for referral of suspected abuse or allegations to the police.

Porous boundaries between the abbey and schools within the extensive grounds made it easy for ‘confined’ monks to breach the conditions of their confinement. The abbots at Ampleforth and Downside were often lax in their enforcement of such conditions.

When abuse committed by Nicholas White came to light, he was moved to the senior school and was even allowed to assume the role of housemaster to his first victim. The abuse of a second victim could have been prevented if the abbot, John Roberts, and the headmaster had referred the first abuse to the police and social services. Regarding Nicholas White’s return to Downside Abbey in 1999, the abbot wrote to the abbot at Fort Augustus: ‘I am hopeful that the climate among our national witch-hunters will be sufficiently muted for him to take up a strictly monastic residence again.’

In common with other Inquiry investigations, the issue of destruction of records arose. Recently, he thought possibly in 2012 (when he was headmaster of Downside School), Dom Leo Maidlow Davies spent some time removing files from the basement of a Downside building. He made several trips with a wheelbarrow loaded with files to the edge of the estate and made a bonfire of them. These files were reported to be primarily the personal records of individual monks and staff stored over a lengthy period of time, which were required to be disposed of to create more storage space. It is impossible to say whether these files contained either potentially incriminating information or, indeed, information which could have enabled victims to have a better understanding of what had happened to them. Regardless of the motivation for the destruction of these records, it adds to the perception of cover-up on the part of Downside.

Time and again within the public hearing, the most senior clergymen in the EBC and in the two abbeys, including past presidents of the EBC Dom Richard Yeo and Dom Charles Fitzgerald-Lombard, admitted wrong-headed judgements, and expressed regret at past failures to protect children. This was necessary but not sufficient. It was not accompanied by full acknowledgement of the tolerance of serious criminal activity, or the recognition that previous ‘misjudgements’ had devastating consequences for the lives of the young people involved. Nor has any comprehensive redress scheme been offered to victims.

As to why such abuse took place, in his reflections on the past, Dom Leo said that the culture at Downside Abbey had, for some time, been ‘relatively individualistic’. Monks were not often challenged … ‘Looking back, this culture was very wrong and helps explain how incidents of abuse took place at Downside and why they were poorly managed with inadequate responses.’ In his corporate statement on behalf of the EBC, Richard Yeo said ‘I have not been able to identify an overarching reason why abuse took place in the monasteries of the EBC during the last 50 years or so, since each monastery has its own rather different story.’

A victim of abuse at Downside offered his interpretation of why abuse occurred:

To put it melodramatically, unexpressed sexual tension stalked the corridors of Downside. Some people are able to contain it and find, I guess, a spiritual vessel; other people probably go into those places to try to protect themselves from it. And at the right place – or the wrong place at the wrong time, two individuals meet, something is constellated, and abuse happens.

A curious ‘twist’ in the catalogue of mismanagement of child protection at Downside occurred in 2016 and 2017, with two letters sent by Aidan Bellenger, formerly abbot of Downside, to Dom Leo. Bellenger told us that he has left the abbey and is seeking a dispensation from being a priest and a monk. He wrote in the first letter: ‘At the heart of darkness in the community is the issue of child abuse which was tolerated by all my predecessors as Abbot.’ The second letter, some months later, went into more detail about his concerns regarding safeguarding in the school. He referred to the imprisonment of Nicholas White and another monk, saying that neither was penitent and ‘both were protected (and implicitly) encouraged by their Abbots’. He went on to say two other monks avoided trial but their activities were ‘perverse and criminal’. A further two monks were both open to allegations of ‘paedophilia’. All these four remained at Downside. He closed by predicting that more historic cases would emerge.

There is no question that these letters should have been notified to the local authority safeguarding lead. The headmaster in 2017, Dr Whitehead, was insistent on this point, but it did not happen.

Dom Leo’s evidence to us was that they were ‘strongly personal’ letters, but as there were no specific allegations within them, he did not need to disclose them. Over time, his view changed, and he apologised for their late disclosure to the Inquiry. Nevertheless, the whole incident, having occurred so recently, gives no cause for confidence that the attitudes at Downside had changed enough to put children first over threat to reputation and embarrassment to senior members of the monastic order.

According to recent inspection reports, the situation at both schools reflects the requirement to have detailed safeguarding procedures in place. On 3 April 2018 the Charity Commission announced that it had stripped the charities that operate Ampleforth School of their safeguarding oversight and appointed an interim manager. They found they were not satisfied that the current safeguarding policies, procedures and practices are adequate and working properly.

Downside has recently commissioned an independent audit of its safeguarding arrangements by the Social Care Institute for Excellence, which has confirmed that some improvements have been made, but there remain important weaknesses.

There was general agreement that the separation of governance between the school and the abbey on both sites was a positive move to restrict the scope for conflict of interests, and to address the issue of undue influence of the monks. Ampleforth took seven years to achieve this. The governance body of Downside first mooted the issue in 2009–10, but has still not made the separation, despite a stated commitment to do so. Nine years later, this demonstrates a lack of priority being given to the issue.

We agreed with Dr Whitehead’s views about the safeguarding challenges still facing Downside. He talked of a ‘massive issue’ in relation to structure and governance, with a culture of ‘monastic superiority’, ineffective governance and a lack of transparency as to who was actually running the organisation. He said they needed to ‘wake up’ to the realities of modern compliance.

David Molesworth, a safeguarding specialist with the local authority, gave his contemporary assessment of child protection at Ampleforth: ‘I do not believe currently that the organisation as a whole understands or accepts their responsibilities for child protection issues … . We appear to be dealing with denial or downright obstruction.’

A public hearing on a third EBC abbey and school (Ealing and St Benedict’s) will be held in early 2019, following which a further report will be published which will include recommendations arising from the overall case study.

Back to top