Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The case of John Maestri

In comments on past blogs, a number of people have asked about John Maestri, a former Middle School Maths teacher at St. Benedict's.

Well, I have been doing some digging, and I have uncovered a few facts.

Maestri left the school somewhat abruptly. The commenter benet left this comment on another article last September.
Many will remember that in 1982 a Middle-School Master called John Maestri disappeared weeks before he was due to replace Dom Laurence Soper as Master of the Middle School.

It emerged many years later that the parent of the victim had complained to Abbot Francis that she would report John Maestri to the Police if he were allowed to take up the post as Master of the Middle School. He then disappeared.
I have heard the same story from other sources. I think I now know who made the complaint, but I will not say. I make it an absolute rule here of not mentioning the names of any victims or of their families.

I have now learned some more. Maestri has been before Isleworth Crown Court on three occasions. All of them for sexual offences against boys under the age of 14, all of them pupils at St. Benedict's School, and all the offences relate to his time teaching at the school. In all three cases he pleaded guilty to the charges.

On the first occasion in 2003, he was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.

On the second occasion in 2005, he was given a Community Rehabilitation Order.

On the third occasion in 2008/9, he was given 2 years in prison, suspended for 2 years.

He has been placed on the Sex Offenders Register for an indefinite period.

I have learned that Maestri went on to teach at another school (I don't know where) after he left St. Benedict's. I have no knowledge of whether he abused children there.

The obvious inference is that Maestri was asked to leave quietly to avoid publicity, and that part of the deal involved giving him a good reference that made no mention of the real reason for his departure.

I wonder how many times something like this has happened at the school.

But the most ironic and even tragic thing is that Maestri's position as junior school headteacher subsequently went to - Father David Pearce.

I think that the Abbey has some questions to answer about this. It was a very strange failure of judgment that caused the Abbot to appoint two paedophile abusers in quick succession as junior school headteacher. Of course, Shipperlee wasn't Abbot then, Francis Rossiter was. Rossiter is still at the Abbey, according to the Abbey website he is now Prior. So the correct person to ask is available.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Archbishop Vincent Nichols on the child abuse scandal

Archbishop Vincent Nichols has had an article published in the Times last Friday. It has the headline The Church is not trying to cover anything up.

The two central points of the article are that nobody (least of all the pope, goodness me no!) has ever been trying to cover anything up, and that the church in England and Wales is far advanced over other places in working out how not to cover things up.

Those two claims strike me as being mutually contradictory. Here's Nichols on canon law.
The relationship between the administration of church law and the criminal law in any particular state is a point of real difficulty and misunderstanding. Nothing in the requirement of canon law prohibits or impedes the reporting of criminal offences to the police. Since 2001 the Holy See, working through the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, has encouraged that course of action on dioceses who have received evidence about child abuse and which the diocesan authorities are responsible for pursuing. The canonical procedure is best put on hold until the criminal investigation is complete, whatever its outcome. This is what is needed. That it has not happened consistently is deeply regrettable.

Now, I sense some careful selection of words here. "Nothing in the requirement of canon law prohibits or impedes the reporting of criminal offences to the police." We can have our doubts about that, given what has been reported in official enquiries in Ireland.

But even if we accept Nichols on this point, he is carefully silent on whether canon law requires the reporting of criminal offences to the police. All he says is that this course of action has been "encouraged" in cases of child abuse. And as he notices, "it has not happened consistently". Now, it seems to me that if it hasn't been reported consistently, it follows that there have been cases where it has not been reported, i.e. it has been covered up.

Of course, it hasn't been reported consistently. If there is no canon or civil law requirement, the temptation is to preserve the short-term reputation of the local church and sweep it all under the carpet. If anything is going to change, there is going to have to be mandatory reporting of all cases, so that the decision as to whether there is something to investigate is taken out of the hands of those who have a responsibility to preserve the reputation of their organisation.

This issue is not one that is limited to the Catholic Church. Private schools of any denomination or none are also greatly subject to the temptation to sweep things under the carpet and avoid the bad publicity (and consequent loss of business) that goes with a paedophile case. The solution is to ensure that a school's procedures are such that cases are detected and reported quickly and the abuse ended immediately. That way, the school's management can present the case as a success, as a demonstration that their child protection procedures are operational and effective.

Nichols goes on to say:

In England and Wales, since 2001, the agreed policy followed by the bishops has been to report all allegations of child abuse, no matter from how far in the past, to the police or social services. By doing so and by having clear safeguarding procedures in place in every parish as well as independent supervision at diocesan and national level, we have built good relationships with those authorities in these matters, including, in some areas, co-operation in the supervision of offenders in the community.
Every parish? Archbishop, I would like to draw your attention to Ealing Abbey, where according to summary note of an independent review recently completed:
The Abbey Child Protection Policy is undated, does not identify a review date and is a statement of intent rather than a clear guidance document to identify and support safe practice. The absence of provenance details and review arrangements can allow such documents to be treated in a rather mechanistic manner rather than viewing them as a contribution to active, positive safeguarding behaviour.
And that is some months after the conviction of Father David Pearce on 11 charges of sexual assault and indecent assault against boys at St. Benedict's School.

To have a policy of encouragement to report, without making it mandatory, essentially leaves the status quo unchanged, even if the policy is one agreed by the bishops. There will still be people (perhaps even some bishops) who will think it better to cover up a case that looks too damaging.

I'm in touch with one of Pearce's victims, who is referred to in various court documents as "C". I'll continue to call him that. It is worth noting that C brought his civil case against Father David and the school in 2006. This followed C's approach to the Abbot in 2004 to report the abuse he suffered. The Abbot did nothing - no report was made by the Abbot to the police. The Abbot made no apology to C for his suffering. And the Abbot made no attempt to remove Pearce from contact with children. That sounds like precisely the kind of cover up that the Bishops' policy is supposed to prevent. But it didn't.

C made a report to the police. The case against Pearce was dropped for insufficient evidence. C then took the extremely brave step of instituting civil proceedings against Pearce and the school. The case came to court in 2006. Pearce and the Abbey denied all abuse. And they lost, to the tune of about £42,000 plus costs. It was paid by their insurers.

The Charity Commission then got involved in the matter, as a result of a complaint made to them. The Abbot promised to ensure that Pearce was removed from contact with children, but in describing the restricted covenant, he wrote stating that its purpose was "to protect Father David from unfounded allegations". As a result, according to the summary note of the independent review, it is unclear who knew about the restricted covenant and why, and so there was no enforcement. Pearce's last victim was groomed within the Monastery, a boy who had been employed to wash dishes.

And yet, the Abbot already knew that there were problems with Pearce's behaviour. According to this interview of another victim in the Ealing Gazette:
The victim's father began building a case against Pearce, causing him to step down from his post [as headmaster]. Yet he was still allowed to remain at the school as an administrator.
So, back in 1993, when Pearce stepped down as junior school headmaster and became bursar instead, it was already known that there was a problem with sex abuse. And yet, when the new policy supposedly came into force in 2001, "to report all allegations of child abuse, no matter from how far in the past, to the police or social services", it appears that no report was made.

It is all very well to loudly declaim new policies, quite another to get people to follow them. Archbishop, I suggest you be careful not to overclaim the extent to which everybody is following them. They aren't.

C's life has been very seriously damaged by the abuse he suffered at the hands of Pearce. His trust of adult authority was blown to pieces. He got involved in some crime, and had a serious nervous breakdown.

He is still estranged from his mother, who even today finds it impossible to believe that Pearce would do such a thing and that her own son must have been lying about the abuse. This is even though Pearce has pleaded guilty to 11 counts of sexual assault and indecent assault, including occasions in which C was the victim.

This is the true horror of paedophile abuse, it is the destruction of trust in the adult world, the destruction of the child's confidence. The effects last for years, even decades afterwards. And if the child is not even believed by his own mother, who can he possibly turn to?

Now, reading this, you may think that the mother is some sort of monster. I don't mean to convey that. I guess that by the time C finally summoned the strength and courage to describe in detail what Pearce had done to him, his behaviour at home had already deteriorated to a very great extent. Pearce had taken the trouble to become a family friend to C's parents. (This is a common tactic of paedophiles who are priests or teachers. It isolates the victim and makes it harder for any complaints to be believed. Pearce of course was both a priest and a teacher to C.)

So I could quite imagine that the mother was faced with a choice between believing an angry and rebellious son who by then was probably in the habit of lashing out verbally at any passing target of opportunity, and believing in an admired and respected pillar of the community who was also an esteemed family friend. Looked at it that way, it is not as obvious as you might think that she should have believed her son. Of course, with hindsight we now know that C was telling the truth. Hindsight is easy that way, especially if you have no personal involvement in the case. The mother's only problem is that she honestly got it wrong. That happens to us all from time to time.

C is now living abroad and gradually putting his life back together again. We exchange emails from time to time. He has given me permission to recount his story here, on the understanding that I don't disclose his name or other details that would identify him.

We owe C a considerable debt of thanks. By taking on and winning his civil case, in my view he has done more than anybody else to have Pearce put behind bars. It was almost certainly the fact that the case had been won which caused the police to take the complaints of Pearce's last victim more seriously and to encourage others to come forward. Without the civil case, Pearce probably would still be a free man and still abusing children.

I mentioned this in an email to him a while back, thanking him for what he had done, and I told him he could hold his head up high and say "I put a paedophile behind bars". That's an achievement few people can equal. He replied saying that I was the first person ever to thank him for it. I sincerely hope that I am not the last.

Back in October, I wrote to the Abbot asking for a meeting to discuss C's case. I wanted to pass on on a request from him to the Abbot. My aim was to try and promote some healing in the family. From C's description, I got the impression that his mother even now finds it difficult or impossible to comprehend that somebody in the church would do such a thing. It seemed to me that a letter from Pearce's superior might help her accept this. So I wanted the Abbot to write to C's mother assuring her that she should have no doubt that C had been telling the truth about the allegations.

After a month of prevarication, the Abbot refused to meet me, saying he had been advised against a meeting.

So I described my request in more detail in an email. I never received any reply.

In this case the Abbot can't possibly be concerned that admitting and apologising for the harm done to C would leave the Abbey open to compensation claims. Compensation has already been determined by the court and there is no question of any more being paid out. I was just looking for a touch of compassion to try and help put a broken family back together - a family that was broken as a result of Pearce's crimes and the inaction of the Abbot and his predecessors in failing to bring those crimes to an end.

C himself wrote to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, describing his experiences and the effect they had had on him. Nichols' reply included the following.
I am grateful to you for telling me something of your background. I was sorry to read of the harmful experiences you have had, and the continuing effects of these for you and your family. I am sorry that you feel that the Roman Catholic Church has failed your family.

In taking the brave action of reporting the crimes inflicted on you, it is clear that you did the right thing.
There seems to be a terrible epidemic of passive voice sweeping through the Catholic Church: "the harmful experiences you have had", and "the crimes inflicted on you". Nobody wants quite to accept that these actions have actors, and that the actors are priests of the Catholic Church. It is as if they are describing some terrible natural disaster that has befallen all these children.

Note again the careful choice of words. "I am sorry that you feel that the Roman Catholic Church has failed your family." This isn't an apology that the Roman Catholic Church has failed the family, nor even an admission of the fact. It is an expression of regret that C feels that way. I was truly nauseated by that reply when I first saw it.

And I notice that when he says "In taking the brave action of reporting the crimes inflicted on you, it is clear that you did the right thing" he neglects to mention that according to the 2001 policy, the crimes should already have been reported by the Abbot.

Most of the rest of the letter simply repeats various things the Abbot said in press statements, including the promise of an independent review. Well, we now know what the Abbot meant by that.

Nichols ends the letter by saying
You may wish to show this letter to members of your family - feel free to show it, or copy it, as you wish.
Nichols talks a good talk. But the actions in this case haven't matched it. Let's see some action. Let's see:
  • a proper apology to C and to his mother,
  • a wide-ranging review at Ealing Abbey,
  • the Child Protection procedures at both the school and the abbey brought up to best practice
  • most important, reporting of suspicions and allegations of child sex abuse made mandatory throughout the church in England and Wales.
When I see these happening, I will believe that the Catholic Church is putting its house in order. I will cheer and I will give full credit for having done so.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

The "Independent Review" at Ealing Abbey

Well, we now have something published.

Links to it have been put in various places on both the School and Abbey website. It is a PDF file. The file name is "Ealing Abbey - Independent Review Feb 2010 Summary Final.pdf".

The title of the document is as follows.

So this is not the report of the Independent Review. This is a summary prepared by somebody. The datestamp on the PDF file itself indicates it was created on 18th March, and produced by "Peter B" who I presume is Father Peter Burns, the Parish Priest. The summary appears to have been prepared in the hope that the ignorant masses would mistake it for the actual report. But anybody with the slightest knowledge either of child protection matters or the nature of reports by independent consultants (on any subject) can instantly tell that this is not the real report.

Allow me to walk you through it.

The first section is titled Background, and contains the following text.
The review into safeguarding arrangements at Ealing Abbey was commissioned by Abbot Martin via the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service. This followed the prosecution of Fr DP for offences committed whilst a member of the Abbey community.

The review was carried out by a recently retired Detective Sergeant with extensive experience of child protection investigations and serious case reviews, and an Independent Social Work Consultant with experience of these types of review within the Anglican Church.
Examine the clues, Watson:
  1. It is not the habit of people who write such reports to abbreviate them unnecessarily. Therefore the real report would not have said "Fr DP", it would have used his full name, "Father David Pearce". This is the work of somebody (perhaps whose typing isn't all that great) doing a hasty summary of another's work.

  2. No consultant conducting an independent review on any subject at all would remain anonymous in this way. All consultants believe that they do good work, and that they should be proud to put their names to it. Putting your name to a piece of work is advertising.
The information available (or more precisely, the lack thereof) means that we have to question the independence of the review, and for that matter the credentials of those conducting it. The fact that the commissioning was via the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service calls the independence into question right from the start.

The Catholic Church worldwide has at the moment what might in an understated sort of way be described as a serious image problem concerning sexual abuse. That image problem extends not merely to the number of people within its ranks who have been found to have committed abuses, but also to the institutional response of senior people within the church who became aware of these abuses.

As a result, it is quite reasonable to have severe doubts about whether an organisation set up by the church is capable of reforming the church to the necessary degree. The Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service was set up within the church for that purpose. Therefore, while it is independent of the Abbey, it is not independent of the church. Now, it is entirely possible that I am doing CSAS a bit of a disservice here - it may be that it is doing outstandingly sterling and effective work in cleaning up the Catholic Church's safeguarding and child protection procedures. I've been concentrating my researches specifically on Ealing Abbey and St. Benedict's School, and so haven't yet had an opportunity to look in any detail into what CSAS has been doing and its effect on the Catholic Church in general.

My point though is that in a case such as this where there has been such a catastrophic failure to protect children in the Abbey's care, I would expect an "Independent Review" to be as independent as it could possibly be. That would mean being commissioned via a secular child protection organisation, not a Catholic one.

On the basis of the limited information available, I also have to question the relevance of the expertise of the people concerned. A detective sergeant is not necessarily the best person to undertake a review of procedures. The skills involved in tracking down criminals - even sex abusers - are different from those involved in defining and implementing procedures to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. A detective sergeant is also not necessarily going to be conversant with the legal and regulatory framework that applies to institutions such as schools.

The same applies to the Independent Social Work Consultant - we do not know whether he has experience of the legal framework and obligations with respect to safeguarding in schools.

Again, I may be doing both of these people a disservice. But the problem is that without knowing their names and seeing their CVs, I have no way of knowing whether they really do have the necessary qualifications, knowledge and expertise. Without knowing who has been doing the work, we have no way of assessing the review's thoroughness and independence.

If you are one of the consultants who conducted the review and are reading these words, I would be very happy for you to email me at and set my mind at rest. I would readily publish an update based on any information about yourself or the review which you are able to provide.

(As an aside, I do wonder what the copyright status is of the original report, and whether the original authors appreciate having their work bowdlerised in this way.)

The Terms of Reference are fascinating. They are:
  • Examine what steps were taken to manage the risk identified in this case.
  • Evaluate to see whether procedurally compliant.
  • Identify what went wrong.
  • Make proposals as to how to better manage such situations in future.
  • Audit current safeguarding arrangements within the Abbey.
  • Check for procedural compliance including any recommendations of the Cumberlege Report not currently reflected in procedures.
  • Make proposals as to any identified improvements.
This isn't even grammatical. There's no way any consultant would accept Terms of Reference so unclear. The first stage would be to define and agree properly clear Terms of Reference. These would have been written down, probably in the form of a letter from the Abbot to the consultants. The Terms of Reference should have been listed in the report, and a copy of the Abbot's actual letter should be reproduced as an appendix to the report. This probably has been done, though since we don't have the report, we can't tell.

Terms of Reference are usually fairly brief. There's no good reason for the full and original wording of them not to have been published. The consultants almost certainly provided an electronic copy of the report in the form of a PDF file. Moreover, the commissioning letter from the Abbot containing the original Terms of Reference is almost certainly still held on his secretary's computer. It would have been a quite straightforward matter for Father Peter to obtain a copy.

So one has to wonder why the original Terms of Reference haven't been published. There are two reasons that spring to mind.

One is simple incompetence. Father Peter only had a paper copy of the report and it didn't occur to him to ask the Abbot's secretary for an electronic copy of the Abbot's original letter, and so not being the fastest of typists, he just dashed off an abbreviated version instead.

The other possibility is that the Terms of Reference were abbreviated deliberately, in order to justify the exclusion of certain Conclusions and Recommendations the Abbot wished not to have published.

Robert J. Hanlon once said "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Certainly, incompetence is a perfectly plausible explanation in this case. But we won't know unless and until the Abbot publishes his original commissioning letter to the consultants containing the agreed Terms of Reference.

But the content of the Terms of Reference as provided is most interesting and not a little worrying.

First, there's the matter of what is meant by "this case". From the context of the conclusions and recommendations, it appears that "this case" means the handling of Father David Pearce's restricted covenant, i.e. the period roughly from the summer of 2006 to the time of Pearce's arrest in January 2008. The Charity Commission opened its first Statutory Inquiry on 28 July 2006, and it was a result of this Inquiry that the restricted covenant was put in place. So, at most, the review appears to have looked at the period of 18 months or so of Pearce's residence under restrictions, during which he abused his last victim. The third conclusion mentions Pearce's "victim" in the singular.

So, the previous 35 years in which Pearce was able to abuse his victims unrestricted is not included within the scope of the Review. No wonder the Abbot never replied to my questions regarding the review's scope!

The second point is that the review appears to be restricted to the abbey and to exclude the school. This is suggested by the fact that the word "school" is nowhere mentioned within the Terms of Reference and only once within the summary itself. Moreover the ToR specifically includes an item to "Audit current safeguarding arrangements within the Abbey" (my emphasis).

Every single victim of the crimes for which Pearce was convicted was a pupil at St. Benedict's School. His official duties took him into the school on a daily basis for decades. It was in his capacity as a teacher at the school that he was able to make contact with and groom his victims. I've already expressed concerns about the child protection procedures of the school.

Are we really supposed to accept this as a fulfillment of the Abbot's public promise to have an independent review "to examine what there is to be learned to ensure that there can never be a recurrence of this situation"? Is "this situation" really supposed to mean the last 18 months of his paedophile career and not the previous 35 years? Is "this situation" supposed to mean only Pearce's activities with Abbey precincts and not within the school or elsewhere?

No reasonable person can be expected to believe that a review with such a narrow scope is intended to do anything other than fulfill that promise in the most meaningless and limited possible way. No reasonable person can treat a review with such a deliberately narrow scope as being an effort in good faith to understand what went wrong with the child protection procedures at the school and the abbey such that Pearce was able abuse children unhindered for such a long period.

The Cumberledge Report referred to in the Terms of Reference includes in its Foreword the following extract from a speech given by Pope Benedict XVI to the Bishops of Ireland in Rome in October 2006.
In the exercise of your pastoral ministry, you have had to respond in recent years to many heart-rending cases of sexual abuse of minors. These are all the more tragic when the abuser is a cleric. The wounds caused by such acts run deep, and it is an urgent task to rebuild confidence and trust where these have been damaged. In your continuing efforts to deal effectively with this problem, it is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all to bring healing to the victims and all those affected by these egregious crimes.
It seems to me that a review with such a deliberately narrow scope is trying desperately to avoid "establishing the truth of what happened in the past", or at least the truth of as much of the past as can be safely hidden away.

And the conclusions included in the review, even one with such a limited scope, are deeply damaging. Let's take them one at a time.
1. There was no formal review arrangement in place to consider Fr DP’s restrictive
covenant. This has subsequently been addressed.
Just consider that for a moment. Even after the Abbey had lost a civil case concerning sexual abuse by Pearce against "C", to whom over £40,000 had been awarded, and after the Charity Commission had conducted a Statutory Inquiry during the course of which the Abbot promised that Pearce would have no further contact with children, there were no formal measures in place to "consider Fr DP’s restrictive covenant". So, we had a known paedophile living in the Abbey, adjacent to the school the Abbey is responsible for running, and there are "no formal review arrangements". Staggering. Just staggering.
2. There was no active work with Fr DP to address and confront the areas of concern about his behaviour, with a reliance placed on established pastoral and discipline arrangements within the community. In the context of sexual abuse concerns it would be sensible to explore opportunities for independent, specialist advice and consultation to support the internal governance processes.
It gets worse! Not only were there no formal review arrangements, but it seems that nothing was being done at all to address his behaviour.
3. Fr DP was able to establish and maintain his relationship with his victim whilst living within the community. It is unclear the extent of knowledge within the community about the details of the restrictions placed on Fr DP. Whilst it is important to treat information about individuals with care and confidentiality members of the community need to have sufficient information to enable them to exercise appropriate monitoring and reporting of concerns.
So, he was supposedly living under restrictions but it is unclear who knew anything about those restrictions. This is only less shocking for the fact that we have known this since the day Pearce was sentenced. At the hearing, the prosecuting barrister read out the Abbot's letter announcing the restricted covenant, which stated that it was "to protect Father David from unfounded allegations".

According to the speech by the prosecuting barrister, Pearce's last victim was aware that he was under some sort of restriction, but that he did not know why. He had a perfectly justifiable need to know. But nobody told him.

It is a statement of the bleeding obvious to say that if nobody is allowed to know that a person is under restriction and why, then nobody is in a position to report to the authorities if the restrictions are being broken. In effect, the restrictions were not enforced.
4. When there is a member of the community subject to restrictive contracts it is unwise to allow employment of young people under the age of 18 within the Abbey precincts.
Well I never. Who would ever have thunk it!
5. The Abbey Child Protection Policy is undated, does not identify a review date and is a statement of intent rather than a clear guidance document to identify and support safe practice. The absence of provenance details and review arrangements can allow such documents to be treated in a rather mechanistic manner rather than viewing them as a contribution to active, positive safeguarding behaviour.
This is 2 years after Pearce was arrested, and 6 months after he was convicted of multiple sexual and indecent assaults over a period of 36 years. And the Abbey still has no procedures! This is nothing short of an absolute disgrace. Quite frankly this is an even bigger scandal than the abuse committed by Pearce. Paedophiles will be paedophiles. It is the job of organisations responsible for the care of children to detect and stop any abuse they cause. Not only has the Abbey and the school entirely failed to detect Pearce's abuses, but even after they came to light, they still have taken none of the steps recommended by CSAS and others to prevent further abuse from happening.
6. The Parish Child Protection Statement is again undated and the review arrangements are not specified.
More of the same. I can't say anything specific, I'm too flabbergasted.

Goodness only knows what the review would have found had it looked further back in time or addressed the School as well as the Abbey. I think it is a matter of urgency that such a review be commissioned.

There are various conclusions that can be drawn from this.
  • I think there is good reason to doubt the competence (or at the very least the effectiveness) of the Catholic Safeguarding Advisory Service. When I met the Abbot last September, he told me that they been crawling all over the place. It seems that they didn't achieve anything of note.

  • Those who believe that the Abbey surely must have improved its procedures as a result of the Pearce case are going to feel betrayed all over again. Gobsmackingly unbelievable as it may be, even months after the case, the procedures are so nonexistent that there could be another paedophile still living in the Abbey or teaching at the school, and the procedures to detect and prevent this remain nonexistent for all practical purposes.

  • The situation can no longer be put down to good-intentioned incompetence on the part of the Abbot. This is now a matter of deliberate obstructionism, both in terms of uncovering the past and in terms of instituting procedures to protect children in the future.

  • If Ealing Abbey is in any way characteristic of the way the Catholic Church in the country as a whole conducts its business in terms of child protection, then those who fondly believe that the Catholic Church in England and Wales is in good shape and has as one commenter has recently suggested "the toughest child protection guidelines in the world" will be severely disappointed. There's not the slightest point in CSAS officials dashing all over the place if nobody takes any notice of them. There's not the slightest point in CSAS having the best procedures in the world if nobody follows them.

  • If Ealing Abbey isn't characteristic of the church as a whole, then there is no excuse for the highest church officials not to come down on the Abbot like a ton of bricks. I acknowledge that this might not be as simple as one might think. Ealing Abbey is not under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Westminster, but is instead a part of the English Benedictine Congregation. Therefore the only person superior to Abbot Martin Shipperlee is the EBC's Abbot President Dom Richard Yeo, and above him is Rome. (As it happens, Richard Yeo was one of the authors of the Cumberledge Report. I wonder what he thinks of the obstructionism of one of his own abbots!)

  • Children at St. Benedict's School are clearly no safer than they were before Father David was arrested. The school's procedures have not been updated since his sentencing, and in my view they are grossly inadequate, and no effort has been made to further update them. If your child is at the school, then you have every right to ask the Abbot and the headmaster what is being done about this. If you are not satisfied by their answers, then for the sake of your children's safety, you should consider withdrawing them from the school. If I had had a child there when the news first hit, he would have been out of there immediately.
I really wanted to be able to report that the Independent Review had shown that the Abbot had learned lessons and that procedures were in place to prevent any recurrence. It wouldn't have surprised me if the Review had uncovered other historical cases. Provided that there was no present danger to children and provided that suitable measures were being been put in place to provide support to past victims, then I would have been prepared to say that no matter how bad the past had been, at least the Abbot was trying to make sure the future will be better. And if that had happened, I would have been generous in giving him credit for it.

But this is a travesty. This is even worse than the worst I had imagined as regards the present state of the Abbey. The past is being hidden away, and the measures to protect the future are nonexistent. What on earth is the Abbot thinking he can achieve by this?

Sunday, 21 March 2010

So let's take a look at the Pope's apology

The Pope's pastoral letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland has now been published in lots of places, for instance here.

I've taken the time to read it at leisure - I'm not a journalist so I don't have to deal in deadlines and get instant comment out. So I've decided to take a bit more time over my comments.

Here's the first paragraph.
Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Church in Ireland, it is with great concern that I write to you as Pastor of the universal Church. Like yourselves, I have been deeply disturbed by the information which has come to light regarding the abuse of children and vulnerable young people by members of the Church in Ireland, particularly by priests and religious. I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.
A mixed start. On the good side, he is being quite blunt about calling the abuse "sinful and criminal acts" which they undoubtedly are. But the bad part is that he is being extremely unspecific about the failings of the church in dealing with reports and allegations of abuse. He has simply mentioned "the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them" without describing it what was wrong with it.

Let us be clear, every profession that involves contact with and the care of children will attract its share of paedophiles. This attraction is a fact of life and must be dealt with. The way organisations responsible for the care of children have to deal with this is by a multi-layered defence against it, making sure that everybody knows what to do in terms of reporting suspicions and passing on reports to the civil authorities. You can't make an organisation immune to the attractions of paedophiles, so you have to ensure that any harm they do is detected early and stopped immediately.

The scandal in the Catholic Church is not that it attracted its share of paedophiles, but rather that its procedures seem to be almost perfectly designed to achieve the precise opposite of what is needed to minimise the harm done. Knowledge of paedophiles was hidden from the civil authorities, all too frequently no attempt was made to prevent paedophiles from remaining in contact with children, a high priority was put on the standing and reputation of the church and its priests (including the minority of paedophiles among them), and protection of the children its its care seemed hardly to figure at all as a priority when making decisions as to what to do with sexual abuse cases that came to its attention.

So, the problem is that the Pope seems to be apologising for the wrong thing. He can't apologise on behalf of the priests who committed the abuse - they were acting without and despite his authority or that of his predecessors. What he should be apologising for is the nature of the church's organisation, policies and procedures that allowed known paedophiles to continue to harm children.

In point 2 of his letter he goes on to say
I must also express my conviction that, in order to recover from this grievous wound, the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children. Such an acknowledgement, accompanied by sincere sorrow for the damage caused to these victims and their families, must lead to a concerted effort to ensure the protection of children from similar crimes in the future.
The problem here is that his only previous mention of the "sins" refers to those who actually committed the abuse, not those who failed to bring an end to it. Paedophiles (even those in the church) aren't suddenly going to put their hands up and apologise publicly for their sins just because the Pope tells them to. This is not least because paedophiles frequently manage to persuade themselves that what they are doing is causing no harm, and therefore shouldn't be regarded as wrong.

The next three paragraphs consist largely of historical background of dubious relevance to the matter at hand, and I see no need to make much comment on it. It is interesting in as much as it sheds light on the way of thinking of the pope, but adds nothing directly to the apology. The next relevant passage is section 6. Here is how it starts.
To the victims of abuse and their families

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen.
Again, it's missing the point. He's using passive voice: "the wrong that you have endured". It makes it sound as if he is trying to avoid accepting responsibility for the fact that the wrong was done by people, and that those people were priests and others in the church, that others stood by and let it happen, and that others covered up the crimes lest publicity damage the church's reputation.

He goes on to address those who have committed abuse.
You betrayed the trust that was placed in you by innocent young people and their parents, and you must answer for it before Almighty God and before properly constituted tribunals. You have forfeited the esteem of the people of Ireland and brought shame and dishonour upon your confreres. Those of you who are priests violated the sanctity of the sacrament of Holy Orders in which Christ makes himself present in us and in our actions.
It sounds very much like the form of words used by Abbot Martin Shipperlee in the case of Father David Pearce. Pile as much blame as possible onto the abusers, in the hope that people will forget about the inaction of those who had an opportunity to put a stop to the abuse.

He goes on:
Together with the immense harm done to victims, great damage has been done to the Church and to the public perception of the priesthood and religious life.
Quite frankly, it is an insult to the victims to mention damage to the public perception of the church in the same sentence as harm to victims. Putting them together like that suggests a degree of equivalence between them which most people will find abhorrent.

He continues:
I urge you to examine your conscience, take responsibility for the sins you have committed, and humbly express your sorrow. Sincere repentance opens the door to God's forgiveness and the grace of true amendment ... Openly acknowledge your guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice, but do not despair of God's mercy.
This is so unrealistic it is breathtaking. Again, he's again taking aim at the wrong target. Paedophiles exist, and they for the most part convince themselves that they are doing nothing wrong. Asking them to openly acknowledge criminal acts is about as realistic as expecting the Pope himself to proclaim the nonexistence of God. It's just not going to happen. If this is the best the Pope can do, then he hasn't even got properly started in grappling with this issue.

He then goes on to address himself to parents.
You have been deeply shocked to learn of the terrible things that took place in what ought to be the safest and most secure environment of all.
There's that passive voice again. It is as if he is describing some terrible natural disaster, rather than a systemic failure of his own organisation.
I urge you to play your part in ensuring the best possible care of children, both at home and in society as a whole, while the Church, for her part, continues to implement the measures adopted in recent years to protect young people in parish and school environments. As you carry out your vital responsibilities, be assured that I remain close to you and I offer you the support of my prayers.
So there we have it. The measures already being undertaken by the church to fix the problem are sufficient, and parents should get on with caring for their children. Oh, and I'll pray for you.

Section 10 is words of encouragement to priests in Ireland, and asking them to pray more.

Section 11 is addressed to the bishops in Ireland.
It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence.
From what we have learned in the Ryan Report and elsewhere, it is "the norms of canon law" which have greatly contributed to this mess. It is the elevation of canon law above the criminal law which has led to cases not being reported to the police. And this airy passing comment that the bishops should "cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence" is really inadequate. The problem has arisen in part because the church has denied the competence of the civil authorities in the matter of actions which broke the criminal law.

Sections 12 and 13 are general encouragement to "the faithful of Ireland". He starts section 14 by saying.
I now wish to propose to you some concrete initiatives to address the situation.
I thought "Ah, now we will finally see what reforms he's going to make to prevent this sort of thing happening in future". Imagine my disappointment when the first measure proposed is as follows.
At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God's mercy and the Holy Spirit's gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country. I now invite all of you to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland.
This reminds me of an episode from Father Ted, where Father Dougal Maguire is stuck on a milk float with a bomb in it, and Father Ted calls on his fellow priests to help him come up with a course of action that will save Father Dougal. Their best answer is to say a mass for him. At the time I thought it a hilarious over-exaggeration for comic effect. I now know better. This is how Father Ted and his fellow priests would address the problem.

"The whole institutional response of the church to sexual abuse has been shown to be corrupt and ineffective. What shall we do?"
"I know! Let's say Mass."

Is the Pope's response very much different? There's not much difference I can discern.

Leaving aside its ludicrous inappropriateness as the first substantive response to the scandal, notice also the aim of this action, "to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland". Nothing about providing justice for or comfort to the victims. Renewal of the Church is the aim.

The next item seems a bit more promising.
I intend to hold an Apostolic Visitation of certain dioceses in Ireland, as well as seminaries and religious congregations. Arrangements for the Visitation, which is intended to assist the local Church on her path of renewal, will be made in cooperation with the competent offices of the Roman Curia and the Irish Episcopal Conference.
If this is the equivalent of sending in the inspectors to examine the books and all the procedures to make sure that all is being handled correctly, then this might do some good. Everything though depends on what specific aims the Visitation will have, and that is not vouchsafed to us.
I also propose that a nationwide Mission be held for all bishops, priests and religious. It is my hope that, by drawing on the expertise of experienced preachers and retreat-givers from Ireland and from elsewhere, and by exploring anew the conciliar documents, the liturgical rites of ordination and profession, and recent pontifical teaching, you will come to a more profound appreciation of your respective vocations, so as to rediscover the roots of your faith in Jesus Christ and to drink deeply from the springs of living water that he offers you through his Church.
This sounds like a pontifical equivalent of "I'm going to set up a nationwide scheme for additional training of all personnel". That might help, depending on what the training is intended to achieve.

The rest of the letter is further general encouragement and promises of more prayers.

So, let's consider the positive aspects of the letter.
  • There is the fact that it was written at all. That is no small thing. I can't remember anything comparable coming from a Pope before.

  • He was quite blunt about the fact that the abuse was a sin and a crime.

  • He did offer criticism of his bishops. Even though it was entirely unspecific, the fact that there was any criticism there at all is (as far as I know) unprecedented in modern times.

  • He's going to do these "Apostolic Visitations", which might cause the dioceses concerned to pull their socks up.

  • There's going to be this National Mission, which (depending on what it actually consists of) might also help to concentrate minds.
But the disappointing aspects are as follows:
  • He seems not yet to have understood (or not been able to admit publicly) the real problem that is at the centre of people's horror and disgust about all this, i.e. the cover-up and the failure to act to prevent known paedophiles from continuing to do harm.

  • He's not proposed any changes to canon law that are intended to help clean up the mess.

  • He's not acknowledged the primacy of criminal law in this area.

  • He's not called for or mentioned the resignation of any senior figures implicated.

  • He's been very vague about organisational measures that will be taken.

  • The victims don't figure very much in his description of the aims of the changes to be made.
To conclude, the problem is that paedophiles, like the poor, will always be with us. What is required is measures to minimize the harm they can do, by ensuring as far as possible that they are caught quickly and are immediately and permanently removed from positions of trust in which they can abuse children.

An apology, if it is to be truly meaningful and effective, has to contain certain key elements.
  • It must be sincere.
  • It must be specific as to what is being apologised for.
  • The thing being apologised for must be the responsibility of the person doing the apologising, either directly or by virtue of his position at the head of an organisation which has done harm.
  • The apology must be accompanied by a sincere determination to stop doing what has made the apology necessary, and practical steps to achieve it.
By those criteria the Pope's pastoral letter, while undoubtedly well-meaning, doesn't score very highly.