The Catholic Herald last week had as its lead story Archbishop Nichols takes legal advice over newspaper's 'unwarranted slur'.
I wrote a Letter to the Editor pointing out that abuse at St. Benedict's School has been going on for decades, and that it is a strange sense of priorities which has Archbishop Vincent Nichols asking for legal advice as to whether he has been defamed by the Times when most of the duration of Father David Pearce's paedophile career at Ealing Abbey has not been the subject of any review or investigation by the church.
Of course, the Catholic Herald didn't publish the letter!
Here is the letter in full.
Sir - With regard to the crimes committed by Father David Pearce at St. Benedict's School and Ealing Abbey, most of the press attention has concentrated on the fact that Pearce managed to assault his last victim while on a restricted ministry. Far more important is that Pearce was able to sexually abuse pupils at the school unhindered during the previous 35 years. Pearce pleaded guilty in 2009 to sexual and indecent assaults on a range of dates from 1972 to 2007. Pearce's nickname "Gay Dave" was widely known amongst the pupils over several decades, as was the danger of being alone in a room with him. It is inconceivable that the adults running the school never learned anything of this.
Another former teacher, John Maestri, has also been convicted three times of sexual assaults on boys at the school. He was sentenced on the first of those occasions to 2½ years in prison, and has been placed on the Sex Offenders Register for an indefinite period. It would appear that the child protection procedures at the school entirely failed to pick up on Maestri, since the convictions occurred some 20 years after he left the school.
Therefore, this is a far greater issue than merely a failure to supervise Pearce properly once he had been placed on a restricted ministry. We have a situation where two now-convicted paedophiles were able to operate at the school over a period of decades. So far, this wider failure appears not to have been investigated at all, and so it is very unlikely that any lessons have yet been learned from these tragic events. In the circumstances, it is entirely possible that abuses by others could also have occurred at the school so far undetected, and that further abuses could still happen there in the future.
On the "Sunday" programme on BBC R4 on April 11th, Abbot Martin Shipperlee suggested that everything had been done correctly according to the guidelines, while Eileen Shearer (COPCA's first director) said that "the system is only as good as those who operate it", perhaps implicitly suggesting that the Abbot was incompetent in implementing the guidelines. Since Pearce was able to continue abusing, either the guidelines weren't adequate, or they weren't correctly followed, or both.
Even today, the school's current published child protection procedures are well short of the CSAS recommendations. For instance, reporting of allegations is only carried out under "proper circumstances", a phrase left undefined and therefore in effect left to the unlimited discretion of the school, and even the definition of "sexual abuse" depends on a subjective assessment of the extent to which the child is aware of the nature of the activities.
It is urgently necessary that a detailed investigation be conducted to see what can be learned from this case over its whole duration of more than 30 years, to reduce the chance of such failures happening again either at St. Benedict's School or elsewhere. In addition, the school's child protection procedures need to be externally reviewed and updated to come into line with best practice, including the mandatory reporting of all allegations and suspicions of abuse to the Local Authority Designated Officer, who then has the responsibility for deciding whether the matter requires further investigation.
It would seem to me that the placing of a priest on restricted ministry in response to child abuse allegations is hardly an everyday occurrence, and I find it extraordinary that the board of COPCA would not be informed when such an event occurs. I also find it extraordinary that COPCA would not also get directly involved in reviewing the arrangements for supervising a priest on restricted ministry when he continues to live next door to a school! However, accepting Archbishop Vincent Nichols' assurance that this is so, this is another area which the review should examine, to see whether COPCA's successor organisations NCSC and CSAS should have a coordinating role in supervising restricted ministries and other similar arrangements, to ensure that best practice in safeguarding is implemented across the country.
Since the events occurred during Archbishop Vincent Nichols' time as chairman of COPCA, this is a failure that occurred on his watch, even accepting that he had no personal involvement in the case. It seems to be a strange sense of priorities for effort to be expended on considering whether the Archbishop has been defamed by The Times while the underlying issues of the case remain uninvestigated. He can hardly be unaware of the extent of the failures now, so there really is no excuse for a full investigation not to be undertaken immediately.