An education at Ampleforth and the hard lessons learned

The Tablet [Market Harborough, England]

February 16, 2023

By Edward Stourton

Was I guilty of ­negligence in the conspiracy of silence that allowed the abuse to ­continue?

The presence of the monks, once considered Ampleforth’s greatest asset, has become its greatest handicap, says a former head boy. The irony is that the college’s disastrous response to its abuse crisis was rooted in a distortion of the merits that in other ways made the place so special.

 When the first stories about abuse at Ampleforth began to surface in the press – in the early 2000s – I had a call from Dom Dominic Milroy, who had taught me French (inspiringly) during my schooldays, and later became headmaster. I had always got on well with him, and he said he wanted some advice, suggesting we meet in a discreet restaurant near King’s Cross before he hopped on his train back north. Over lunch he asked whether I had any ideas about how the fallout from the abuse stories could be managed and, more worryingly, explained his concern that some of his fellow monks did not fully appreciate just how damaging they were.

The episode brought into tight focus the contradictions between the values I had learnt growing up and those I had developed as an adult. I was working on the Today programme at the time, and we had run several prominent reports on abuse, including revelations of the way Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, then Archbishop of Westminster, had been complicit in covering up priestly crimes earlier in his career. In the journalistic culture of the day, priests and monks were generally regarded as guilty unless proven otherwise, and the bright, young – and very secular-minded – producers I worked with were absolutely unforgiving in their judgements.

I shared their view that the idea of “managing” stories about abuse was itself a problem – that abuse is not a PR issue, but a catastrophic moral failure and a serious crime. I suggested to Fr Dominic that if Ampleforth really wanted to show the world it had got to grips with this reality, the monastery should let in a documentary team to record the way the monks handled an offender living among them. Fr Dominic was rather taken with this idea – he had always liked bold thinking – but he doubted the monks would buy it. We parted on our usual good terms and I put Ampleforth’s travails out of my mind.

 The 2018 report on Ampleforth and Downside (an equally prominent Benedictine boarding school outside Bath) for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) is sweeping in its verdict; the tone balances dispassionate respect for the evidence with barely suppressed rage; and the detail is brutal. The central finding hits you in paragraph three:

“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 con- siderably higher.”

In the days following the IICSA report, its impact spread right across this wider community. It was not so much a pebble that sent out ripples, it was more like a rock crashing in from nowhere, throwing up angry gouts and sprays. I began to wonder whether I myself had a case to answer. The report ­covered the 1960s until the present day, so it included all my own time at Ampleforth. As head of school for a full year during this grim saga, surely I would have – and certainly should have – known something of what was happening? Was I guilty of negligence, even of collusion in the conspiracy of silence that allowed the abuse to continue for so long?

If the IICSA report was to be believed, no detective work should have been needed to spot the flagrant abuse that was going on: “Many perpetrators did not hide their sexual interests from the children,” it stated. “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.”

A skim-read of the report gave me some reassurance: during my years at the school, the really serious crimes were being committed at Gilling Castle, Ampleforth’s prep school, three miles away across the valley. I was in the clear – and the case, sorry saga though it might have been, could, in my own mind at least, be closed. Except that it could not be, not really. Events kept nudging it open again – just as they have done with the abuse scandals in the wider Church. It is some 30 years since priestly abuse became a real focus for media attention. Popes, bishops and priests keep saying sorry and vowing that it must never happen again, and then another dump of devastating evidence comes crashing down. Like the Church as a whole, Ampleforth found it very difficult to shake off the sins of its past.

A year after the IICSA report, inspectors from the schools regulator Ofsted descended on the school for an unannounced visit and found that Ampleforth was still not meeting child-protection standards. The head, who had recently been appointed precisely because of her experience in safeguarding, resigned almost immediately – which meant that the school had four head teachers in just over a year, a crisis in leadership by any standards.

At the same time the monastery was caught in the coils of a bizarre conflict with its own abbot – over abuse allegations. Dom Cuthbert Madden was one of the few monks to come out of the IICSA report relatively well, but in 2016 he was himself accused of a historic sex crime. He denied the charges, stepping aside while the matter was investigated, and neither North Yorkshire police nor the Catholic Safeguarding Adviser Service found against him. But the wider English Benedictine congregation refused to allow him to return to the abbey. Fr Cuthbert took his case to the High Court and to the Vatican, which eventually ruled that while he had “not committed any canonical delict nor been convicted of any civil crime”, he should not be allowed to return to the abbey. It seemed a weirdly inconclusive resolution to the whole affair, which did great reputational damage. 

Then, in the autumn of 2020, a truly mighty blow fell upon the school. After another surprise inspection by Ofsted, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, issued a “restriction order”, banning it from taking any new pupils – a ban that would, if it remained in force, kill the place altogether. The Ofsted findings were vague – a point quickly seized upon by the school, which appealed against the education secretary’s decision – but the old sins were at the heart of them. “Leaders have not taken precise enough account of the long-standing historical failures at Ampleforth in their current practice,” the report declared.

It was now a decade and a half since that lunch with Fr Dominic: it seemed inconceivable that after all the monastery had gone through the monks still did not, in that ugly but in this case apposite expression, “get it”. I steeled myself for another read, a real study rather than a quick skim, of the IICSA report. And this time I found a date that made me realise I could not quite write all this out of my own story: “In 1975, the then Abbot Basil Hume received a complaint from the parents of a pupil, RC-A152, that Fr Piers [Grant-Ferris] had inappropriately touched their son. The abbot, together with Fr Justin Caldwell and Fr Patrick Barry (then headmasters of Gilling Castle and Ampleforth College respect­ively), launched an internal investigation.” 

Here, at the heart of things, were two of the monks I had most admired when I had been at Ampleforth, and they were conducting their investigation into Fr Grant-Ferris at just the time I came to know them best. Grant-Ferris was the son of a distinguished Tory MP and wartime fighter pilot. I never met him, but he had the kind of upper-crust, dashing profile that was characteristic of the more charismatic Ampleforth monks. Basil Hume eventually concluded – “reluctantly”, according to the IICSA report – that Grant-Ferris could no longer be allowed to work with children, and moved him to a parish near Leeds. The police were not informed of the allegations against him, and over the next 25 years he worked in six parishes across North Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. It was not until 2005 that the past really caught up with him. He was convicted of 20 counts of indecent assault against 15 former Gilling Castle pupils from 1965 to 1975. He was sentenced to two years in gaol and placed on the Sex Offenders Register for 10 years. 

After wading through this horrible story, I could not help asking myself how we should judge the role of Basil Hume, a church leader who probably commanded wider public esteem than any other of his era. His monkish manner inspired people to call him “holy” without it seeming trite, and his Englishness made Catholics seem less odd in British society. Was all the good he did cancelled by that terrible lapse in judgement (as we would, at a minimum, call it today) back in 1975? Questions about his judgement so many years ago are probably unanswerable: we cannot know with any certainty how he reached his decision, or really understand the instincts that guided him: the assumptions he grew up with were certainly very different from today’s. But his appearance in the IICSA report underscores an uncomfortable fact: I did not know the monks accused of actual abuse but I did know those who were complicit in ­covering things up, and they were all monks I would once have said embodied the “precious Benedictine values” I admired. A close reading of the IICSA report has driven me to a painful conclusion: the worm at the bottom of this bucket is that the abuse story at Ampleforth had a distinctive Benedictine character.

One of the IICSA report’s most striking quotations is taken from a document written by Dom Timothy Wright, who was a teacher when I was at school and served as Ampleforth’s abbot from 1997 until 2005. “If paedophilia is a form of compulsive illness then the degree of responsibility for their [paedophiles’] actions is to some extent diminished …” he stated. “God continues to love them in their compulsion. They are not cast out of the Church.” Any Catholic will tell you that Fr Timothy’s concept of God’s love – all-embracing and all-forgiving – is standard church teaching, part of the radical core of Christianity. But to any secular mind they sound like a nasty piece of sophistry, shifting the guilt away from offenders, and they include absolutely no acknowledgement that the harm done to victims should be part of the moral equation.

Fr Timothy’s view of the “compulsive” ­quality of paedophilia was, it seems, elastic. He also wrote: “It is likely that there are many who by prayer and self-­discipline have been able to control their emotions and have never offended. Others again who have offended once and following treatment have been able to lead to work well in the community [sic]. In the light of this, it is both wrong and unjust to treat them in the same way, assuming that those who admit to a single offence are concealing further offences.” So, monks who resisted their compulsion towards sex with children deserved mitigation in the light of their moral fortitude, while those who failed to resist bore little moral blame.

Fr Timothy’s logic had disastrous practical consequences. 2001 saw the publication of the Nolan Report, the first serious attempt by the Catholic Church in England and Wales to develop a real policy to deal with abuse. Lord Nolan, a former Appeal Court judge (and, as it happened, an Ampleforth Old Boy), stated unambiguously that all abuse allegations, whether current or historic, should be reported to the statutory authorities, and made it clear that this applied also to all disclosures of abuse by perpetrators. Fr Timothy resorted to hair-splitting to get round the Nolan recommendations. He was driven

by his understanding of the duty of care an abbot owes to the monks who form his community. “For the ongoing health of community relations it is important that trust and confidentiality are maintained,” he writes, and “that the brethren do not see their ­superior as both ‘father in God’ and ‘police informer’ at the same time.”

Fr Timothy was educated at the school. He went straight from school to monastery. Almost all of his life had been lived according to the principles and prescriptions in the Rule of St Benedict. Chapter 27, with the title “The abbot’s care for the excommunicated”, lays down that “The abbot should show the utmost care and concern for those brothers who have done wrong”, and “He should exercise great care and extreme sensitivity, making every effort not to lose any of the sheep entrusted to him. He must bear in mind that he has undertaken care of weak souls, not a tyranny over those who are strong.” However wrong-headed Fr Timothy’s thinking may have been, you can see where it came from.

Fr Timothy’s attempts to justify his approach to abuse reveal a sad irony: the worst of Ampleforth’s response – the cover-ups, the resistance to outside interference, the way the monastic authorities always seemed to care more about their criminals than their victims – was rooted in a distortion of those very values that in other ways made the place so special. The pool of serenity the abbey offered and the cesspit revealed in the abuse inquiry shared the same source.

Ampleforth’s ambition is still to be “a place given wholly to the worship of God in a setting of incomparable splendour”, but the secular authorities have turned it into a place of locked doors and electronic keypads. The only way the school could be kept open was a divorce from the monastery. Those monks – the majority – who are not involved with the school are barred from entering its premises because monks have shown they are not to be trusted. And because the school and monastic buildings were designed to integrate the two communities they house, the business of keeping them apart is obtrusive. The easy intercourse that made Ampleforth a single community when I was there has gone.

The greatest harm done by abuse at Ampleforth was, of course, borne by its victims – and until the truth was told, many of them had had to carry that burden on their own. Gavin Williamson’s ban on new pupils was eventually lifted, and the school is flourishing. But it is no longer a monastic school – certainly not in the way it was during my time there. The presence of the monks was once considered Ampleforth’s greatest asset, something that set it apart; today it is the school’s greatest handicap, and there is talk of the monastery moving out of its existing home altogether. 

And the damage has been done not by the kind of commissars sent in by Thomas Cromwell to close the monasteries, nor by Harold Wilson’s socialist zealots, so feared in my time. It has been done by the monks ­themselves.

An edited extract from Confessions: Life 

Re-Examined, published by Doubleday (£20; Tablet price £18).