Benedictines to hold Landmark Child Protection Conference in London
An Article published in ‘La Croix International’
By Elena Curti
Elena Curti is a freelance journalist and a parishioner at Ealing Abbey. You can register for the conference
There was a time when members of the Benedictine community at Ealing Abbey in west London felt too ashamed to leave their monastery. The seemingly endless tide of complaints of sexual abuse by former pupils at their school caused the community to close in on itself.
In a YouTube testimony, Father James Leachman OSB describes the monks’ reactions as they gradually absorbed what happened to former pupils at St. Benedict’s School. “We weren’t talking to each other,” said Father Leachman. “Some of the monks were not able to speak about it. Some were pretending it never happened, some could not go into the street because of the shame. Some were insulted and asked, ‘how can you belong to an organization like this?’ It was so very shocking.”
It is a measure of the changing atmosphere at Ealing Abbey that after more than 12 years of terrible headlines, the community is taking action and organizing a conference on child protection.
The conference — “Growing in Connectedness: Healing the History of Child Sexual Abuse” — takes place on Oct. 21 at St. Benedict’s. It is believed to be the first initiative of its kind by a religious order in England and Wales.
The keynote speaker is the Vatican’s foremost expert on child protection, Father Hans Zollner S.J., well known for the robust line he advocates for dealing with abuse cases and cover-ups.
Father Zollner congratulates Ealing Abbey for trying to do something to raise awareness of the issue in a situation that is “very difficult and very bleak.” He is President of the Centre for Child Protection of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the advisory group set up by Pope Francis in 2014. Father Zollner wants to see structural change that will institute a simple, clear procedure in Rome for handing abuse cases involving religious orders.
He said: “We need to be on top of things in terms of reporting, transparency and accountability and that requires a clear assignment of responsibilities. There is too much overlap with regard to who is responsible for what in the local and global Church when it comes to priests in Religious communities.”
It is impossible to know exactly how many pupils were physically and sexually abused at the independent day school founded by the Ealing monks more than 100 years ago. The majority of reported cases go back to the 1970s and 1980s when survivors describe a brutal regime. Five men have been convicted in connection with abuse: two monks and three lay teachers. But there have been complaints against several other monks, some resulting in financial settlements. The most high profile case concerns a former abbot, Laurence Soper, who jumped police bail and escaped to Kosovo where he lived for five years before his arrest in 2016. He is serving an 18-year prison sentence on 19 charges of rape and other sexual offences against 10 pupils.
In 2010, Abbot Martin Shipperlee OSB commissioned an independent inquiry by the barrister, Lord Carlile of Berriew Q.C., who recommended the monastic community give up control of their school. The abbot reluctantly agreed. The Vatican sent an apostolic delegation to conduct its own investigation.
Father Leachman is the driving force behind the safeguarding conference. He contacted Father Zollner two years ago and then won the support of Abbot Martin.
“We will be entering a conversation,” said Father Leachman. “It will be about how we keep children safe and move on into the future.” Facilitators with expertise in conflict resolution and various forms of abuse, will lead the sessions. A number of survivors will be present anonymously and others will read out accounts of their experiences on their behalf. There will be small group discussions, storytelling and music. It is an approach favored by Father Zollner, who is a licensed psychologist and psychotherapist. He describes a recent event hosted by the Centre for Child Protection at the Jesuit Church of St. Ignatius in Rome. “There were 400 people there and there was music, and dance. People were very moved. Many cried. As well as changing norms and structures, you need to touch people’s hearts,” he said.
Five years ago, Abbot Shipperlee appointed facilitators to support the abbey’s 13 monks to help them gradually begin to talk to one another.
An experimental monks’ peer group operated at the monastery over the summer with members taking turns in leading, learning and accompanying as they went. Next month, Ealing Abbey will begin a service offering psychotherapy and counselling to survivors. Ealing Abbey and St. Benedict’s will be in the media spotlight again in 2019 when its abuse record is investigated by a national, statutory body, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The inquiry is examining why institutions, including the Catholic Church in England and Wales, failed to protect children from sexual abuse. In August, IICSA published a highly critical report about two Benedictine boarding schools: Ampleforth in North Yorkshire, known as the Catholic Eton, and Downside in Somerset. It concluded that there was a culture of acceptance of abusive behavior and the prioritization of monks and their reputations over the protection of children. As a result, many believe that the Benedictines’ involvement in schools must now end.
Richard Scorer, of the lawyers, Slater and Gordon, who represents seven victims testifying at the IICSA inquiry into Ealing Abbey said: “It’s difficult given the revelations at IICSA to see how the Benedictine schools can continue to operate in tandem with monasteries. It seems to me that after everything that has happened, there has to be not only a legal but a physical and geographical separation.”
But Father Zollner said there is no evidence that child abuse is specifically a Benedictine problem: “If you look at the figures produced by the Royal Commission in Australia, the number of cases involving Benedictines was no different to cases in other religious congregations and in dioceses. “What we need is consistency of formation and screening for admission to religious life or seminary and ongoing formation. There needs to be a common agreed policy for everyone.”
Ealing Abbey is next door to St. Benedict’s School and Abbot Shipperlee is aware of the suggestion that the monks should move somewhere else. Rather than respond, he wants to concentrate on learning what makes a member of a religious community abuse children. He said: “Abuse doesn’t fall from a clear blue sky, it comes out of a context. The people abusing now, the people abusing in the 1980s did not invent it. They learned it somehow or other. “If you say it’s all about this particular problem, you can say, OK, you can send the malefactors to jail. And you can put the schools under independent management and you can move the monasteries to the Hebrides or get rid of them altogether but it won’t stop it. None of those things will stop it.”
Father Zollner is also convinced that structural changes alone will not make a difference.
“We need a change of attitude and a change of culture. We can say it is only by introducing guidelines that things turn around but people need to take personal responsibility for speaking out and not allow themselves to sink into a sort of complacency. “We cannot do that if we want to prevent abuse. We need constant and sustained attention and action,” he said.