Friday, 27 November 2009

Open Letter concerning Child Protection at St Benedict's School (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

The second issue I wished to discuss with you is the school’s Child Protection and Safeguarding Policy document. I notice that this has been recently revised and published on the school website. (Regulations requiring publication of the child protection procedures of independent schools on school websites came into force in February 2009.) Nonetheless, it is a seriously inadequate document, and I dread to think how much worse its predecessor was. I have the following comments.

At many points within the document, it is stated that this or that action “should” be carried out. Where no discretion is intended in terms of the procedure to be followed or action taken, the word “should” is inappropriate. Instead, use the word “shall”. Every use of “should” within the document needs to be reviewed. Either the word should be changed to “shall” or guidance should be included indicating the circumstances under which the action might not be performed. Given the large number of occasions where “should” is used in the document, it hardly qualifies as a procedure at all.

Paragraph 3
This paragraph appears to be detached from any relevance specifically to child protection.

Paragraph 4, bullet 3
When Fr Pearce was moved from the position of Junior School Headmaster following complaints about him, was a “prompt and detailed report” made to the Independent Safeguarding Authority as specified in the policy? If the policy has been changed since then, why was this change made, and if the policy was in place at the time, why was no such report made?

Paragraph 4, bullet 11
This bullet refers to protecting children who have been abused, in accordance with an agreed child protection plan. However, there is no mention in the procedures of how a child protection plan can be agreed and implemented.

Paragraph 5
This paragraph states that “every complaint or suspicion of abuse from within or outside the school will be investigated and in all proper circumstances will be referred to an external agency”.
Were such complaints concerning Fr Pearce investigated? If not, why not? If so, what were the results of the investigation?
Were such complaints referred to an external agency? If not, why not? If so, what was the result of that referral?
How are “all proper circumstances” defined, and who has the authority to decide whether the circumstances are proper or not?

The problem with this paragraph as it stands is that the “all proper circumstances” phrase, not qualified or defined, in effect leaves the school with unlimited discretion to decide whether or not to make a referral of a case to an external agency, no matter how serious it might be.

Paragraph 6: The designated teacher
The duties in paragraph 6 conflict with the duties in paragraph 7, in that in paragraph 6 the duties are undertaken are on behalf of the child, while the last bullet point in paragraph 7 indicates that duties are carried out on behalf of the school. This is a clear conflict of interest and must be resolved.

Bullet 8 of this paragraph requires that “appropriate action is taken” in actual or suspected cases of child abuse. Was appropriate action taken when suspicion fell on Fr David? If not, why not?

Paragraph 10: Possible signs of abuse
Most of the descriptions of possible signs of abuse appear to be make the assumption that the likely source of abuse is the home. Additional signs which ought to be included are an unwillingness to attend school, and a loss of respect for the authority of teachers.

Paragraph 11: Physical abuse
Saying “possibly made by a belt” is attempting a diagnosis of a physical injury which no teacher (including the designated teacher) is competent to make. The wording of this paragraph should not explicitly or implicitly encourage the making of such diagnoses.

Paragraph 12: Emotional abuse
It would appear that since all abuse involves emotional abuse, then the possible signs of emotional abuse should be the same as paragraph 10. (By the way “principal” is mis-spelled). Again, the parenthetical notes all have the effect of tilting the perception of the reader towards a diagnosis of possible abuse in the home. No such diagnosis should be made or attempted.

Paragraph 13: Sexual abuse
It is beyond comprehension that the initial paragraph is included with its present wording.
[Sexual abuse] Is the involvement of dependent (legally under 18), developmentally immature children and adolescents in sexual activities they do not truly comprehend, to which they are unable to give informed consent.
Where on earth did that definition come from?

First, any sexual contact with those under the age of consent is illegal and should be regarded as such.

Second, the phrase “developmentally immature” is entirely subjective, and suggests that unless the sexual activity is something which the child does “not truly comprehend” then it is not sexual abuse. It is hard to even start to describe how utterly wrong and misguided this is.

It has to be made clear that any sexual contact between a pupil of the school (including any who have passed their 18th birthday) and any teacher, governor, volunteer or any other person acting in any kind of official or supervisory capacity for the school should be regarded as sexual abuse, whether or not there is any complaint about it from the victim, and irrespective of the developmental maturity of the child. This is because of the imbalance in the power relationship between staff and the pupils they are in authority over. Because of this relationship of authority, no consent can be regarded as valid even if given in what the child considers to be good faith.

Using the phrase “developmentally immature” in the definition of sexual abuse in this way is in effect a sexual abuser’s charter, in that the claim can always be made that the child is sufficiently mature to consent, and the phrase is sufficiently vague as to be interpreted in any way that you wish.

Given the recent case of Fr. Pearce, I am staggered that this wording remains as it is.

The various definitions of abuse (particularly sexual abuse) should be updated to be consistent with the government’s guidelines What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused, and to make it clear that any kind of sexual contact or other activity with sexual overtones between staff and children must be treated as sexual abuse.

In the various possible signs of sexual abuse, “Truanting/running away from home” should be separated out into two bullets, since truanting is an avoidance of schools, and may therefore be indicative of sexual abuse whose source is in the school, while running away from home may be more indicative of a problem at home.

Paragraph 15: Staff responsibility
Much of this paragraph is concerned with further definitions of abuse, particularly emotional abuse. The contents of this paragraph should reflect its title and describe the responsibilities of staff, where they are distinct from “Duties of employees, governors and volunteers” as described in the following paragraph.

Paragraph 16: Duties of employees, governors and volunteers
It is not stated how employees, governors and volunteers will initially acquire the knowledge necessary to carry out their duties. It should be stated that they shall take up their duties only after they have undergone an induction in which they are made aware of their duties in respect of child protection, the school’s policies and procedures, and the relevant people to contact.

This paragraph is also a curious mix of general statements of legal duties and rather vague descriptions of procedures to be followed. The duties and the procedures for executing them should be separated for clarity and the avoidance of confusion. Where there are two descriptions of the same procedure (as for instance here and paragraph 18) there is inevitably scope for confusion as to which is the correct procedure to follow. To avoid such confusion, procedures must be kept separate from other text, must be stated only once, and should be entirely clear as to the extent of discretion available to a staff member when following the procedure.

Paragraph 17: Whistleblowing
The current text is too weak.
All staff are required to report to the Designated Teacher, any concern or allegations about school practices or the behaviour of colleagues which are likely to put pupils at risk of abuse or other serious harm. In exceptional cases such reports should be made to Ofsted. There will be no retribution or disciplinary action taken against a member of staff for making such a report provided that it is done in good faith.
Given that it appears that there was “sort of” knowledge of Fr. Pearce’s activities for a considerable time before he was arrested, this is inadequate. The text should be re-worded so that it is clear that there will be no retribution or disciplinary action in the event of a report unless it can be proved that the report was made maliciously.

Paragraph 19: Preserving Evidence
Mobile phones and computers not already the property of the school cannot be taken from their owners without consent, even if they contain evidence of possible abuse. To do so is theft. In the event that evidence is contained within such items, the safeguarding of evidence must consist of copying the information and promptly returning the device to its owner. Furthermore, in the event of an allegation or suspicion of a crime, it is not the task of the school to investigate, but instead to immediately refer the matter to the police, who have both the duty and authority to obtain and safeguard evidence in the way described.

Paragraph 22: Action by the Designated Teacher
It is unclear by what criteria the Designated Teacher will decide how to proceed. There are various items listed which should be taken into account, but nothing is stated as to the way these considerations affect the required course of action.

Furthermore, the second bullet suggests that no further action is taken by the school in the event of a complaint involving a serious criminal offense once a referral is made to the police or SSD. This is seriously inadequate. The evidence may be strong enough to require action to safeguard a child from a staff member or volunteer without necessarily being strong enough to undertake a prosecution for a serious criminal offense. In such a case, the child would be left unprotected if the school takes no further action. The second bullet must therefore be altered to make it clear that the lack of further investigation does not apply in the event of a complaint or suspicion regarding a staff member or volunteer within the school. However, any investigation must be carried out in co-operation with external agencies, and in such a way as not to compromise any criminal investigation.

Were the complaints regarding Fr Pearce referred to SSD or the police?

Paragraph 23: Referral Guidelines
This paragraph is rather woolly and contains too many double negatives. It should be rewritten to clearly state the circumstances under which the Designated Teacher shall make a referral. Use of terms like “normally” should be avoided unless it is specified what sorts of abnormal cases would require a different course of action.

Paragraph 25: Monitoring of Low Level Child Protection Concerns in School
It is not sufficiently clear where the dividing line comes between insufficient and sufficient grounds to make a referral to an outside agency. The sentence “Often there are insufficient grounds or evidence to suggest referral to an outside agency” should not be there in its present form, as it is leading the reader to expect that a preponderance of cases should not be referred, and therefore to make a first assumption that a case is not serious. It should be re-worded to start with “Where there are insufficient grounds to suggest referral to an outside agency…” followed by the action that should be taken instead.

Paragraph 26: Allegations against staff members
The school’s “procedures for dealing with allegations against staff” referred to in this paragraph should be published. In fact, in as far as they apply to allegations of abuse against children they should be incorporated into this document. Otherwise, there is no means by which parents and pupils can have confidence that the procedures do in fact “strike a balance between the need to protect children from abuse and the need to protect staff and volunteers from false or unfounded allegations”.

The fact that the first sentence of this section refers to false and unfounded allegations against staff suggests that this remains a higher concern than the protection of the children in the school’s care.

It should be made clear that when a staff member is suspended pending investigation of an allegation, the suspension must not be regarded as a disciplinary action, must not be recorded as such on the staff member’s personnel record and must not be considered to be indicative of the staff member’s probable guilt. Instead, it must be regarded as an administrative procedure pending the outcome of any investigation. It would appear in the past that there has been great hesitation over suspending any member of staff lest this imply a belief of that person’s guilt. A clear statement to the contrary will make it far easier to assure the protection of children while protecting staff from the adverse consequences of unfounded allegations. This is standard procedure in many organisations (including schools) in the event of an allegation of wrongdoing by an employee, pending investigation of the allegations.

This section contains passages within square brackets suggesting that they have been copied and pasted from some external source and that the bracketed passages should have been edited to make them applicable to the school’s specific documents.

This entire section requires detailed review and revision. It is seriously inadequate as it stands. That it should have been reviewed and republished since Fr. Pearce’s arrest and conviction and still remain in this state is astonishing.

Paragraph 27: Early years – pre-preparatory school and nursery
It is unclear why informing Ofsted of allegations of serious harm or abuse by persons on the premises should be restricted to the premises of the pre-preparatory school and nursery.

To state that “the School” will inform Ofsted leaves the responsibility unspecified. The responsibility for informing Ofsted should be given to a specific person, probably the Designated Teacher, so that there is no mistaking who must take the action.

Paragraph 28: Allegations against pupils
A double standard is being applied here regarding the actions towards staff and the actions towards pupils when an allegation has been made. The difference in the language between this paragraph and paragraph 26 suggests that the criteria for suspending a pupil are far lower than for suspending a member of staff. Furthermore, any suspension of a pupil must be carried out in accordance with the school’s legal obligations regarding temporary exclusions and the process by which they are carried out. Reference to the school policy on exclusions should be made here, and the policy and procedures for exclusions should be publicly available.

Paragraph 29: Suspected harm from outside the school
This paragraph appears to contradict earlier paragraphs suggesting that all conversations or other concerns must automatically be reported to the designated teacher, specifically paragraphs 18 to 21. It is unclear what paragraph 29 adds apart from confusion.

Paragraph 30: Monitoring
The Designated Teacher cannot adequately monitor his or her own actions, which form a very large part of the operation of the policy and procedures. Therefore, responsibility for monitoring the operation of the policy and procedures must be given to some other person, probably the Headteacher, since he has overall responsibility for the safety of pupils within the school.

Paragraph 32: Agencies
The names and addresses of the governors should also be included, since they also have a legal responsibility and a supervisory and monitoring role in ensuring that the child protection procedures are maintained and adequately implemented.

I trust that you will act with some urgency in respect of these comments, since they indicate a serious inadequacy in the child protection policies and procedures at the school. It is particularly troubling that the two weakest sections concern sexual abuse (paragraph 13) and allegations against staff members (paragraph 26) despite what appear to me to be an obvious need to give these sections special attention in order to prevent any kind of repetition of abuse such as was perpetrated by Fr. Pearce.

I recommend that in reviewing these procedures, you contact the Ealing Safeguarding Children Board and ask their advice regarding best practice, and also contact other schools in the area (both state and independent) and obtain copies of their procedures so that you can make use of the best of them.

Yours sincerely

Jonathan West


  1. Excellent! Clear, well argued and to the point.

  2. Very good work. Wish you all success. From what I've read here, looks like only someone such as yourself getting involved is going to bring about safeguards so this stuff won't keep happening. Sadly, that often seems the case. Long established organizations seem unable to see for themselves, or admit to, what wrongs they've come to accept over time.

  3. Yes, Mr West, you’ve done a great job here. But, am I right in supposing you’ve had no reply? If so, maybe you’d send in hard copies of these letters. That way – with or without a reply – they’ll at least be on file in the Abbey.

  4. The Church “in tatters” - all trust had gone.

    An international Catholic organisation has written to Pope Benedict XVI calling on him to remove Irish bishops named as part of the cover-up of clerical child abuse in Dublin. The Voice of the Faithful has also challenged the pope to order an Ireland-wide inquiry covering every diocese to examine further cases of priests abusing children.
    In the letter, the group says "accountability cannot be achieved while so many bishops and archbishops, who have knowingly over a considerable period of time permitted this tragedy to persist, continue in office".
    The group, which also has branches worldwide, asks the pope to order an island-wide inquiry into each diocese. So far the church in Ireland has resisted demands for an investigation covering all 26 Catholic dioceses.
    Last week's report, carried out by Irish judge Yvonne Murphy, identified four former archbishops of Dublin as failing to report their knowledge about child sex abuse to the Garda. The Vatican and the papal nuncio in Dublin were both singled out for criticism in the Murphy report, accused of ignoring requests from the judge and her commission for information about abuse in the Dublin diocese.
    The Voice of the Faithful letter tells the pope that "repeating the tragedy of Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Ferns, Cloyne, Sydney and so many other dioceses worldwide, four archbishops of Ireland's most populous diocese have behaved in a manner that facilitated the deepest psychological, emotional and spiritual trauma to many children.
    "They have also endangered gravely the divine mission of the church, as well as the souls once more repelled from it. The time to act is now. The secrecy must come to an end. We are convinced that this programme cannot be speedily achieved in Ireland or elsewhere without the deployment of the full authority of your own office."
    Sean O'Conaill, Voice of the Faithful's acting co-ordinator in Ireland, said that if the pope ignored their calls, "we will be forced to a conclusion that will be fatal to Catholicism globally: that the papacy also puts the Catholic clerical institution before the interests of children.
    "To deny that change is now necessary in the way the church governs itself is to condemn other children of the church to the same trauma and to condemn the rest of the church to endless derision and scandal. "Catholicism cannot survive this. To argue that God supports the present church system is to argue God approves of child abuse – and that is blasphemy."
    Voice of the Faithful…called yesterday for any national inquiry to include the alleged role of secret Catholic societies in covering up the scandal.
    "We know that certain politicians were connected to 'Opus Dei' and that organisation's reach is very very long. It extends into many fields of public life in Ireland. The question any inquiry on a national level should ask is, did these societies or their members exercise any influence on the decisions not to pursue the abusers in the interest of the church's reputation?" Irish SOCA co-founder Patrick Walsh said that despite a 10-year battle to expose the truth about abuse both in dioceses and church-run institutions, he was still shaken by the content of the Murphy report: "We wondered why at the time the Irish hierarchy were so hostile towards us. Now we know they were protecting themselves and their religious orders. We see the fuller picture from these three reports, the upshot being that we have a church disgraced, totally and completely."
    However, Walsh praised the role of the current Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin in helping the victims and facilitating the Murphy Commission: "He has clean hands. Unlike other bishops and cardinals, he is a man of honour who opened the books for the commission, and for that he deserves everyone's praise." - Henry McDonald, The Observer, 29 November

  5. Well done for persistence. Please stick to your guns and don't let the school get away with sloppy and suspiciously vague policys

  6. 'Sloppiness' and vagary will be the order of the day so long as the school remains under its present management!

  7. You're absolutely right. But, these villains can't simply be let off the hook - at the very least, they've a hell of a lot more explaining to do. After that, yes, it has to be 'sayonare and don't call us'. In short, whatever else happens to them, they must have nothing more to do with the running of a school.

  8. Three Post-Modern Rules for a Community such as the one we 'all know and love'....

    See no evil in whatever you do,
    Hear no evil about whatever you do,
    But, for God's sake,
    Do no evil, that might be found out!

  9. Very good. But actually you've missed a rule. Rule no 4 :

    Whatever happens Keep Stumm

    The Catholic version, I believe, is - Keep mum.

    Anyway, Oedipus Schmoedipus! Keep up the Good Fight!!

  10. Is there anything more we can do to further 'the fight'? As someone has commented, real pressure needs to be brought to this issue. We badly need an action team to back the efforts of Mr West.

  11. Nothing at all will be achieved by merely talking on this blog.

    If you genuinely want anything to change at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict's school, then there is no point in us merely talking to each other here.

    I have reached the limit of what I can achieve alone with the Abbot - he has now refused to meet me. Nothing more will happen unless a group is formed which is able to apply more pressure than individuals can manage.

    I remain concerned at the inadequacy of the child protection arrangements there, as I've stated in the Open Letter to the Abbot. If you want to see any changes and are willing to form a group, email me here

  12. Why not just remove your children from the school?

  13. What local MP, ANDY SLAUGHTER, has to say on this matter:

    '..the Charity Commision wrote to me with the findings of their Inquiry into St Benedict's Abbey in Ealing. The Gazette has reported on the scandal of Father David Pearce, a priest at the Abbey and former head of St Benedict's junior school, sentenced to eight years custody in October after almost 40 years of sexual abuse of young boys. In the most damning report I have ever read from the Commission, they concluded: 'the trustees failed to ensure that the restrictions imposed against [Fr Pearce] were properly implemented and we were extremely critical of the trustees in this regard'.
    The restrictions were those placed on Pearce after the High Court had found allegations of sexual abuse proven against him, but which allowed him to continue to abuse children. These appalling events are reminiscent of those recently exposed in the church in Ireland and the United States.
    What is now being called for and must be implemented is proper compensation for all victims and an independent and transparent inquiry into how Pearce was able to continue his criminal behaviour for so long.'

  14. Good for the Commission! Good for Andy Slaughter!

  15. There were indications, from Mr West among others, that Andy Slaughter would be contacted. Did this contact take place and what, if anything, has been Mr Slaughter's response? It is surely a major duty of any MP to make sure that his constituents, especially his younger and more vulnerable constituents, are properly protected, or at least to check that everything possible has/is being done to secure their protection? This is a significant test of how local democracy responds to local needs.

  16. I emailed Andy Slaughter on 2nd of January. It is probably too early to expect a reply in view of the backlog caused by the Christmas and New Year breaks. As soon as I have more information I will post it on this blog.

    It would be useful if other people (particularly his constituents) contacted him as well as there is strength in numbers.

    Phone: 020 7610 1950
    Fax: 020 7381 5074

    Former Pupil (1975 - 1982).