Friday, 4 November 2011

Catherine Pepinster

In her column in The Tablet, Catherine Pepinster has been lamenting the defilement of Ealing Abbey, which she regarded as "a very special home for me". I have a good deal of sympathy for her. I would like to address this blog article to Catherine Pepinster, going over some of the issues raised in her article.
Several years ago, I clearly remember being at Mass in my parish and thinking at the Consecration: imagine if the hands that held the host were the hands of someone who had assaulted a child. To those who are not Catholic, such a thought would be meaningless alongside the horror of a vulnerable child being abused. But it would make any Catholic shudder. Might I have had any inkling of what was to come? A short while later, a priest friend asked to meet me. Something was clearly up yet it never occurred to me - not once - that this Benedictine monk whom I'd known most of my life was to tell me that he was accused of abusing children.

Today, Fr David Pearce is in prison.
Catherine has previously gone on record as having been a longstanding friend of Father David, and I entirely sympathise with her shock about this. Clever career paedophiles are very good at polishing their outward appearance of respectability. The primary damage they do is to their child victims. But while it doesn't compare in seriousness to the damage done to children, it is worth acknowledging the damage done to the adults who were taken in by that outward show of respectability. Father David was the very epitome of this. What could possibly be more respectable than a monk, priest, teacher, former dentist, TA officer? All jobs which earn people's trust. There is no disgrace in having been taken in by such a very plausible liar.
Three of his fellow Ealing Abbey monks have been investigated as well. One has been restricted in his dealings with children; another was found not guilty but after his acquittal was asked to leave the monastery. The third, Fr Laurence Soper, is wanted by the police after failing to answer bail. He is thought to be somewhere in Italy.
I'm sorry to have to break this to you Catherine, but there are more than this. The ISI report last year mentioned six separate cases, five monks and one lay teacher. Four of the five monks are Father David Pearce, Father Gregory Chillman, Father Stanislaus Hobbs, and Abbot Laurence Soper. I have a good idea who the fifth is, (he no longer lives at the Abbey) but I haven't had sufficient confirmation yet to justify naming him.

But in addition to those five, and John Maestri (the lay teacher referred to in the ISI report), Father Kevin Horsey would very likely have been charged by now had he not died in 2006.
The fallout from this scandal continues, day after day, in Ealing. Monks who have given their lives to the Church, to their order, to their school, and to the parish, and who are innocent of any crime, are now viewed by some with suspicion.
That suspicion is understandable. Not only because people will be wondering whether somebody else will be charged with abuse, but because they will also be wondering who knew about the abuse, and covered it up.
The individual who was found not guilty of abuse was made to leave the monastery, under pressure from the diocese.
The way you have presented this suggests that you might have been misinformed about the circumstances. The monk in question is Father Stanislaus Hobbs, and he has indeed been moved out of the monastery. And I don't doubt that pressure from the diocese was a factor. But the primary insistence on this came from the Department for Education.

Hobbs was indeed acquitted in 2007 of the charge made against him. But in the course of police questioning, recorded and played during the trial, he admitted to a similar indecent assault on the same boy during a school trip to Italy. Because of the way the law stood at the time, that assault could not be prosecuted in the UK because it took place abroad. the defence argued that the victim had made up the story of the assault in the UK because he knew that the assault in Italy couldn't be prosecuted. The jury decided there was reasonable doubt and acquitted, as they had every right to do.

The Independent Schools Inspectorate, the Department for Education, Ealing Social Services and the diocese all formed the view that Hobbs on balance of probability was a danger to children, since there was a recorded admission of an assault on a child, even though no prosecution could result from it.

The ISI in its recent report on the school advised that the trustees should "Ensure that any staff or members of the religious community live away from the school, if they are subject to allegations of misconduct related to safeguarding or convicted of wrongdoing." On the basis of that recommendation and in the light of Hobbs' own admission, there was no way that his continued presence at the Abbey could be justified. And yet the Abbey fought tooth and nail to prevent his removal. Why?

And the monk you mention who "has been restricted in his dealings with children" by the same token also ought not still to be at the Abbey. He would hardly be restricted unless he too had been found to be a danger to children, and yet he remains at the Abbey, in defiance of the ISI recommendation. Have you attempted to find out why this is so?
There have been rows between parishioners with very different opinions, from those who think that a priest in prison is evil and should have no contact with any of us, not even a Christmas card, to others who refuse to believe that "Father" could possibly have done anything wrong and it's all a plot by the anti-Catholic media.
I can believe it. Those who claim it is all an anti-Catholic plot include the headmaster of the school Mr Christopher Cleugh, who used his prizegiving day speech in September 2010 to press that line. In front of several hundred assembled staff, pupils and parents, he said "Recent media and blog coverage seems hell-bent on trying to discredit the School and, at the same time, destroy the excellent relationship between School and Monastery. Is this part of an anti-Catholic movement linked to the papal visit? I do not know, but it feels very much as if we are being targeted." Has it occurred to you that at least some of those who complain most loudly about anti-catholic plots might be doing so in order to divert attention from genuine catholic abuses which they have committed, or at least know about?
There is also a great deal of suspicion about the past. When Fr Laurence Soper was abbot and suddenly resigned, we were never given any formal explanation. Then a story floated which seemed to stick: that he'd had a row with his brethren about the cost of the church extension. Or did he flee because there were already complaints about his behaviour towards young boys?
I think you are right to be suspicious. It is perhaps a pity that your suspicions weren't aroused earlier. One of the things school inspectors are supposed to be trained to do is regard any sudden departure of somebody from a school setting as worthy of detailed investigation, especially if it occurs in the middle of the school year, and even more so if it occurs in the middle of a school term. All such sudden departures are supposed to be checked during an inspection. The majority do have an entirely innocent explanation - a move to a better job at another school, a departure for reasons of illness or to look after a sick relative. But concealed amongst them can be departures that are actually for reasons of abuse, which the school has kept quiet about because they don't want the adverse publicity. This it seems is how John Maeastri's departure from the school was handled, it was put about that he had left for reasons of ill health. And for that matter, ill-health was also given as the reason for Father Gregory Chillman's retirement as a governor of St Augustine's Priory School last year.

If it turns out that Soper did skip town because of complaints about his behaviour (for instance, possibly at Feltham Young Offenders Institute, of which he was a visiting chaplain until he left for Rome), then the rumour put out about the row over the church extension must have been a lie, and known to be a lie by those who spread the story, and know to be a lie by Abbot Martin Shipperlee, who clearly did nothing to prevent the story from being accepted.
And what of Fr David: how long did other monks know of his activities? What secrets were kept hidden for so long
I can answer that for you. His abuses were kept secret for at least 15 years, and possibly considerably longer. He "retired" as Junior School Headmaster at the end of 1992, as a direct result of complaints about abuses. I have spoken to the victim concerned. But he wasn't removed from the Abbey, he was instead made Bursar of the school, and as far as I am aware remained associated with the Cadet Corps. Later, he was even given additional responsibilities within the Abbey, being appointed Novice Master in 2004. This was at the time the diocesan safeguarding adviser, Peter Turner, was advising the Abbey that Pearce should be placed on restrictions because there had by now been several independent and credible complaints against him. That advice was ignored by Abbot Martin Shipperlee.

In 2006, the boy known as "C" sued the Abbey and Pearce for damages resulting from Pearce's abuse of him when he was a pupil in the school in the period 1989-93. The Abbey fought the case and lost. Damages were awarded to the value of £43,000. I have been told by a number of parishioners that the story put out was that the case had been settled out of court, not because the abuse had occurred, but out of consideration for the claimant's fragile mental state. This was of course a complete lie.

But at least after this, the Abbot, under pressure from the diocese, did finally put Pearce on restricted ministry. But you appear not to have known that he had been put on restrictions - it seems that very few people did know that he had been restricted, and even fewer knew the real reason why. At the sentencing hearing of Pearce's trial in 2009, the prosecution read out part of a letter from Abbot Martin which stated that the restrictions were "to protect Father David from unfounded allegations", whereas in fact the allegations were all too well-founded, as Abbot Martin knew perfectly well.
And problems with several monks from the same monastery: is that bad luck or symptomatic of a failure in leadership?
You don't get a mess like Ealing, with multiple abusers able to operate unchecked over a period of many years, without there having been serious management failures at many levels. The earliest account of abuse I have been told about dates back to the late 1940s. Here we are, over 60 years later, and the Abbey has not yet come to grips with the problem.

Yes, of course the Abbey's leadership has failed in the most catastrophic way imaginable. But the failings haven't ended there. The Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation is supposed to advise the Abbot. Whatever advice was given doesn't seem to have been effective. And the diocese of Westminster has known about abuses at Ealing for many years, and yet has neither obtained the Abbot's agreement to a diocesan inquiry nor made a request to Rome for an Apostolic Visitation. That request was made by me, and passed on by the Papal Nuncio, bypassing the diocese altogether. Archbishop Vincent Nichols had essentially washed his hands of the business, offering to do no more than pass my concerns back to the Abbot. There is plenty of blame to go round, enough for it to stick to a lot of senior catholic officials.
Time and again, the Catholic Church's response to calamity has been secrecy. Last weekend, I went along to a parish meeting at Ealing Abbey, wanting to know more about the abuse scandal and Fr Laurence's disappearance. But the parish priest refused to take any questions other than those submitted in advance. Those selected were about lighting, sound systems and the new translation of the Missal. Any other business would throw things off course, he said.

The conspiracy theorists will view this as a sinister attempt to conceal scandal. I suspect it is more to do with incompetence and the fears of people who are completely out of their depth.
I suspect that they realise that no honest answers will remotely justify their continued management of the school. And they also probably realise that any lies they tell may well be found out next week when Carlile publishes his report. So their only option is to say nothing and helplessly wait for the axe to fall. Carlile is due to publish next week.


  1. Oh please, give me a break.

    David Pearce, the "epitome" of "respectability"? "Plausible"??

    If 12-year-old kids could sense that Gay Dave was weird and steered well clear of him, how naive does an adult have to be to take him unquestioningly as a lifelong friend?

  2. 09:44
    I take your point. But the fact is that Pearce was well-respected amongst the adults and parents of the parish. He did manage to fool a lot of people for a very long time.

  3. It is interesting though how adults were completely clueless and children within minutes recognised he was a menace.

    I am intrigued how much more adults/teachers needed to have their suspicions aroused.

    His checking if you were dry at swimming was not whispered in the hallways. It was well known and the sole reason why many opted out.

    I remember getting in trouble with my PE teacher at the time and he told me to go and see Fr. David. I said fine but not on my own. To cut it short, the teacher couldn't go with me. So, I refused and nothing more was said about it. Although, the relationship with the teacher who until that point had been one of my favourites was never even close to being the same again.

    I often wonder what that teacher thinks when he looks back on that instance.

  4. Surely I'm not the only person who remembers the "Oh Father David do not touch me" song which was often sung on the rugby bus in the presence and hearing of members of staff. Everyone amongst the boys and staff knew this man was a menace but in the period I was at St B's (74-84) an adult's word was always believed over that of a child. Pearce presented a very plausible face to the outside world hiding his viciousness behind an urbane mask.

  5. Totally remember it, but then again we sang it about a lot of the teachers but everyone new what he was

  6. "His success in life has come through his own efforts with strong family support and not, I regret to say, from his time at St Benedict’s which made him under achieve and with left him with a contempt for authority."

    I was at St Benedict's in the early 1980's and this statement could very well describe me.

  7. Point of fact: Pearce was appointed novice master in 2000. I was one of his novices in 2001-02. He was already under some restrictions then, as he was not allowed to enter school premises - a rule which he casually ignored on a number of occasions.

  8. I have found the revelations and public denouncements about the School both cathartic and a vindication of my own feelings.

    I was a pupil at the school from 52-62, I have only unhappy memories from that period. Until my children went to school - definitely not St Benedict's - I assumed that school was something that had to be endured. It was confusing for me to see they loved their schools and responded well in them.

    For many years this has made me reflect upon what was wrong with that place that made me so unhappy or was it in some way my fault ? I was never knowingly sexually abused but noting the comments above about being tested for dryness after games and swimming I realise we all were in some way or other.

    There was a foul cancer in that place for many years, in my time I recognise this now as a repressive reign of terror. So far from what an education should be.

    We owe a great debt of thanks to those brave ex-pupils who have stood up to the system and revealed these painful details, their actions will hopefully have stopped this happening in the future .

    (Note: this comment has been published with one sentence deleted. If the author is concerned about the deletion, you are welcome to email me. JW)

  9. I too was at Bennies from 73-85 and we all knew that gay dave was as bent as 9 bob note! I now live in NZ but friends and family have recently alerted me to this story. I too remember the song well! I was taught RE and history by the fella and was in the Cadets. I'm glad the truth is finally out! he fooled a lot of people for a very long time...

  10. I was a pupil between 1980 and 1987. (from middle school to u6). A friend of mine who I haven't seen for a while and was also a pupil showed me this blog at the weekend and I have been reading it since. Thank you Jonathan for this blog and thanks to all the ex pupils who have posted their thoughts and experiences. I can confirm what other posters have said about father david, and the outrage I, and some of my friends, felt when he was moved from head of U4 to junior school headmaster. We had thought he was going to be removed following a complaint from a parent about his tea parties, but when we learned he was being "rewarded" with the junior school we worried for the safety of the younger boys. I wish I could remember which boy's parent complained about Father David's tea parties, it would provide some evidence of concerns being raised in the first half of 1983.
    Like many other posters I am baffled as to why none of the lay teachers raised their concerns when they were so obvious to us children.

  11. As a former pupil (Middle School 1964- Upper School 1967) I was quite shocked when I first heard of this scandal, from a teacher at St. Augustines, five years ago. While there obviously is plenty of evidence I for one, experienced no "abuse" whatsoever. Neither was I aware of any of my close friends being mistreated( apart from caning of course). Whilst always proud of my "old school" I think twice now when asked. What a shame!