Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse: Interim report released on Downside and Ampleforth Schools

[Joe Ronan]

A report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was released on 9thAugust. This document, one of a number already released, with others planned, reported specifically on the sexual abuse that took place in Ampleforth and Downside Schools over the last 50 years, and on the response to that abuse by the schools’ authorities. It makes grim reading.

IICSA was set up in 2015 to look at the response of public bodies and important institutions to child sexual abuse in their organisations.  This was in the wake of the revelations about Jimmy Savile and of abuse in various public bodies including the NHS, the BBC, and the prison service.

IICSA is looking into the response to child sex abuse in institutions including custodial institutions for children, children’s homes, Nottinghamshire Councils, Rochdale Borough Council, as well as the Catholic and Anglican churches. Its remit is to “consider the growing evidence of institutional failures to protect children from child sexual abuse, and to make recommendations to ensure the best possible protection for children in future.”

In this case study on Downside and Ampleforth the report says there was “blatant openness”in describing how abusive behaviour took place in group settings, but contrasts that with the secretive and evasive approach to child protection. “For decades, they tried to avoid giving information, other than what was specifically requested,  to the statutory authorities, that might have assisted the investigation of the abuse of children in their care.”

Conclusion 5 states “On the few occasions where parents raised complaints about sexual abuse, or were informed about it by either institution, some preferred not to have the matters treated as a crime requiring police investigation, but to keep it quiet at all costs. Their interest was to protect the school, the Benedictine Congregation and the Catholic Church. In some instances, parents also wished to protect their children from the process of police investigation.”

The report contains harrowing descriptions of the abuse suffered by children at the school, and of the completely inadequate and evasive response both by individuals and the institution as a whole.

The IICSA report also criticises the way that “Even after the Nolan Report, when monks were obliged to work with the statutory authorities and gave the appearance of cooperation and trust, their approach could be summarised as a ‘tell them nothing’ attitude.”

The English Benedictine Congregation (both schools are owned and managed by Benedictine monks) has recognised the failings shown by this report. The current Abbott President of the EBC said “Once again I apologise unequivocally to all those who were abused by any person connected with our abbeys and schools. The report highlights how flawed many of our past responses have been. We continue to work conscientiously to ensure our communities are safe environments for young people both now and in the future.

Damning as the conclusions are, the frightening truth is that the facts that come out of this report are by no means unique in today’s society or confined to the Catholic Church.

IICSA has reported similarly on abuse in Rochdale children’s homes and has on-going investigations into Lambeth Council, Children in custodial institutions, Residential schools, the Anglican Church and Westminster.  Even this wide purview is a cut-down version of the original intention to include the BBC and the NHS in the investigations.

The Catholic Church around the world has in the past failed in many ways to protect children in its care, but starting with the Nolan report in 2001, it has begun to create the environment in which safeguarding and protection of children is a primary concern.

In 2001 Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor asked Lord Nolan to study the situation regarding safeguarding and child protection within the Catholic Church and to make recommendations for the future.  His eventual report resulted in a sea-change in the way that Catholic Dioceses and institutions responded to child protection. Five years later the Church commissioned the Cumberlege Commission to review the way the Nolan recommendations had been put into place.  That report (‘Safeguarding with Confidence”) showed that the Church was then a safer place, had implemented 79 out of the 83 recommendations either completely or partially, and made further recommendations to improve things further.  This process of improvement continues to this day with the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission producing an annual report monitoring the effectiveness of responses to abuse, and publishing statistics on new allegations.

The IICSA report acknowledges that good data on the extent of child sexual abuse in institutions is very scarce.  In November 2017 the Inquiry published a review of existing research on child sexual abuse within the Anglican and Catholic Churches. This highlighted that the best published quantitative information on abuse within the church was commissioned by the US Catholic Church in a report known as the ‘John Jay Report’. This report has been followed up subsequently by further study, forming perhaps the most comprehensive analysis of abuse in any institution.

The analysis by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice shows clearly the extent of abuse within church structures, but also puts that in the context of the level of abuse throughout society.  It shows that children are significantly less at risk in Catholic dioceses than in US society as a whole.  It also indicates that the level of clerical abuse in the USA rose from a low level in the 1950’s, peaked in the 1970’s and has dropped back to a low level in recent years.

The Catholic Church having acknowledged its failings, has in commissioning such studies as the Nolan Report and the John Jay Report shown that it is very serious about understanding the problem and scale of institutional abuse, and establishing suitable systems to address it.  The summary of the follow up report to the John Jay Report “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 contains a call to other institutions to follow suit:

“No other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church. Other organizations should follow suit and examine the extent of sexual abuse within their groups to better understand the extent of the problem and the situations in which sexual abuse takes place.”

Individual Church Institutions such as Downside and Ampleforth need urgently to review their responses and ensure that such abuse as has been described can never happen again.  But only if all institutions, secular and religious, take to heart the fact that sexual abuse of children is widespread, in families and public bodies, religious organisations and secular ones, will we be on the path to eliminating it in our society.

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