Charity Commission Investigation — With Comments by Brian Mark Hennessy

The National Secular Society reported on Wednesday, 14 Dec 2016, a Charity Commission Investigation into the St Laurence Education Trust

(NSS Report in full):

A statutory inquiry has been opened by the Charity Commission into the St Laurence Education Trust and Ampleforth Abbey, over the Catholic charities’ handling of sexual abuse allegations. The St Laurence Education Trust runs two prestigious independent Roman Catholic schools, the Ampleforth College and St Martin’s Ampleforth. The Ampleforth Abbey religious community shares a site with Ampleforth College, which is at the centre of child sexual abuse allegations.

The Commission said that the St Laurence Education Trust faced an investigation over “the charity trustees’ approach to safeguarding and handling of allegations of sexual abuse” at Ampleforth College:”The investigation follows media reporting regarding individuals with links to Ampleforth College in connection with allegations of sexual abuse. The Commission has been engaging with the trustees on this matter since August 2016. A decision was taken to open the statutory inquiry on 15 November 2016 after considering further information from the trustees and the Commission’s statutory duties.”

The Charity Commission is not investigating the allegations of abuse themselves, but the governance and response of the charity to allegations. The statutory inquiry will examine whether there has been “misconduct or mismanagement” by the charities’ trustees and their “handling of safeguarding matters”. Additionally, the investigation will consider “how the charities dealt with the risks to the charities and their beneficiaries arising from alleged abuse incidents, including the application of their safeguarding policy and procedures.” It will also look at “the administration, governance and management of the charities by the trustees and whether or not the trustees have complied with and fulfilled their duties and responsibilities as trustees under charity law”.

The Commission stressed that it was not a “safeguarding authority” and that its inquiries into the St Laurence Education Trust and Ampleforth Abbey, a religious community that shares a site with Ampleforth College, would not go into the investigation of “allegations of abuse or actual incidents of abuse, whether historic or recent.” “Anyone with concerns about specific incidents of alleged abuses, whether historic or recent, regarding any charity, should report their concerns to the police and the relevant safeguarding authorities,” the Commission said.

Richard Scorer, a lawyer representing many victims of abuse in the Catholic church, and an NSS council member, said that “there have been serious concerns for many years about the handling of complaints of child abuse at Ampleforth and indeed in the wider English Benedictine Congregation. These concerns have intensified following recent media stories. The decision of the Charities Commission to initiate a formal inquiry into these issues indicates the seriousness of the problem. It is imperative that religious organisations are held to the same standards as secular organisations when it comes to child protection.”

 

 

Comments by Brian Mark Hennessy

Brian Hennessy further comments that Readers of the Mirfield Memories Blog (Comboni Missionaries – A Childhood in their Hands) may wish to ask why is it that the Charities Commission rejected, almost without comment, two complaints made to them by Brian Hennessy and Kevin Scullin in regard to the Comboni Missionary Order’s non-compliance with its stated Charity Commission Account mission, its misuse of Mission Funds in the settlement of legal cases, (and in respect to this article) – why the Order totally rejects all safeguarding procedures of the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom – to which they are bound! Was it merely because the Charities Commission was reluctant to become involved because they wanted to avoid a charge from the Comboni Missionary Order that they were “interfering with rights of “freedom of religion” under article 9 of the Human Rights Act ?” If that is the case – then they have opted also not to fulfill two of their primary obligations which are to ensure that funds accrued for charity are not being misused and their donors have not been misled!

It appears now that since the Charities Commission rejected submissions made to them by Brian Hennessy and Kevin Scullin that they have had a change of heart – following pressure from the National Secular Society’s Council Member, Richard Scorer. Brian Hennessy says he will renew pressure on the Charities Commission to include the Comboni Missionary Order in addition to their new investigation into Ampleforth on precisely the same grounds: the governance and response of the Comboni Charity to allegations, whether there has been “misconduct or mismanagement” by the Comboni Charities’ trustees and their “handling of safeguarding matters, how the Comboni Charity dealt with the risks to the charities and their beneficiaries arising from alleged abuse incidents, including the application of the Comboni Charity’s safeguarding policy and procedures, the administration, governance and management of the Comboni Charity by the trustees and whether or not the trustees have complied with and fulfilled their duties and responsibilities as trustees under charity law”.

A previous article from the National Secular Society, entitled: “Religious Privilege Undermines Abuse Victims’ Access to Justice” by Richard Scorer was published in this Blog in a previous edition. Richard Scorer is a specialist child abuse lawyer at Slater & Gordon. In this article, published in the National Secular Society in August 2016, he draws attention to organisations seeking more lenient treatment over child abuse-connected matters because they are religious and makes the case for no concessions being given. That article begged the question: Which is more important: religious freedom, or safeguarding children from abuse? For those who missed it and who are interested in this topic, that article is repeated below:

“Should churches and religious organisations be exempt from secular standards of child protection? Two recent court cases involving the Jehovah’s Witnesses raise this issue in its starkest form.

Some background. Over the past two decades a significant number of abuse cases have emerged in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Clients of mine who allege they have been abused within the organisation describe a culture which is profoundly collusive with child abuse. It’s hard enough for abused children to speak out in any setting; in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s bordering on the impossible. The organisation is notorious for its “two witness” rule: anyone who accuses an adult of abuse must have a corroborating witness. Since the vast majority of child abuse occurs in secret, the effect of this rule is to silence abuse victims. Moreover, if there is no corroborating witness, the complainant is often treated as having made a false accusation. This leads to the complainant being “disfellowshipped”, or ostracised by other Witnesses. A terrifying prospect if, like most children growing up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, your entire family life revolves around them. In this way, victims say, the culture of the Jehovah’s Witnesses facilitates and protects abusers.

The two legal cases have opened a window into this culture. The cases involve the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, the legal entity through which the Jehovah’s Witnesses operate. One case concerns the Watch Tower Society’s liability to pay damages to a proven victim of abuse. The Society sought to argue that its devolved structure means that it cannot be ‘vicariously liable’ for the actions of its officials who abuse children. The Watch Tower Society’s defence failed at first instance in 2015, and its attempt to take the case to the Court of Appeal was dismissed last month.

This is a variation of the argument advanced by the Catholic Church, which maintained for many years that priests were not employees and therefore the Church could not be liable for their actions. The Catholic Church’s long running battle to evade responsibility on that basis ended in failure in 2012.

Meanwhile, in 2014, in response to emerging allegations of child abuse, the Charity Commission instigated a statutory inquiry into the Watch Tower Society’s approach to safeguarding. Quite reasonably, the Commission wants to understand whether the Society’s trustees have fulfilled their safeguarding responsibilities under charity law. Also, the Commission sought production of relevant documents. Rather than cooperate with the inquiry (as one would expect of an organisation with nothing to hide), the Society applied for a judicial review at the High Court to try to abort the inquiry and resist the production order. The Society argued (amongst other things) that the Charity Commission was “interfering with (the Society’s) rights of freedom of religion under article 9 of the Human Rights Act… by commencing an inquiry with a view to changing Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religious practices“.

In other words, if the purpose of the Charity Commission inquiry was to ensure that the Society is complying with secular safeguarding norms, this violates religious freedom.

In March this year the Watch Tower Society lost its application for judicial review. But as often seems to happen in English law when an issue of serious social importance falls to be decided, the matter became bogged down in an obscure technical argument; on this occasion, about whether the Society had pursued the correct legal avenue in seeking to challenge the Commission’s decision. The Court of Appeal decided that it hadn’t. The Society’s subsequent attempt to pursue the matter to the Supreme Court also failed. The underlying question- which comes first, religious freedom or the protection of children from abuse- will have to wait for another day.

Following the Court of Appeal decision, the Charity Commission urged that the Watch Tower Society “engage constructively” with the inquiry. Anyone affected by safeguarding issues in the Jehovah’s Witnesses should contact the Commission’s lead investigator; a number of my clients are providing input to the inquiry. But the Society simply said that it was “looking at the ruling carefully and evaluating where we can go next”. So we can probably expect more attempts to stall the inquiry and resist proper scrutiny. But at least these court cases have had a beneficial side effect: they are raising public awareness both of the issue of child abuse in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the wider issue of religious organisations and churches pleading a religious justification for evading basic norms of child safeguarding.

The Catholic Church in Australia for example, (but not Britain) has successfully evaded being sued for clerical abuse for decades on the ridiculous premise that it is not a legal entity – which has not stood in the way of it operating bank accounts or receiving legacies.

In Australia, hearings in the Royal Commission on child sexual abuse exposed the Witnesses’ culpability in protecting abusers in a devastating fashion; the Royal Commission heard that their safeguarding procedures were “woefully deficient”.

Here (in the UK), the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, now chaired by Professor Alexis Jay, needs to link with the Charity Commission inquiry and undertake a thorough investigation into culture and practices within the organisation.

If the Jehovah’s Witnesses imagine that they can escape scrutiny of their safeguarding failures, I am certain they will be proved wrong. The courts have certainly given them short shrift. But in exposing what has happened, we need to nail the central issue once and for all: child protection is more important than religious expression.

Religious organisations need to obey the law of the land, just like everyone else. When it comes to child abuse, religious exceptionalism needs to stop”.

(Note: Paragraphs in bold type were selected from the original text by Brian Mark Hennessy and do not appear in bold type in the original article).

 

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