... or does he?
The following email has been sent out to the Old Gregorians mailing list, and has been forwarded to me.
On Tuesday 3rd January 2012 Richard White, known at Downside as Father Nicholas White, a House Master and teacher in the School was sentenced to five years imprisonment for the abuse of children at Downside School. The Media have already made this public. This letter is to inform the whole Gregorian Family about this sad episode. Father Nicholas showed a fundamental betrayal of trust and, on behalf of the whole community, I apologise without reservation for what he has done. We are conscious that the care of children is our paramount concern as educators and we are truly sorry that any child should have been abused here while under our care. We must not underestimate the great damage such abuse can inflict on people and we will do everything possible to ensure that it does not happen again in the future.Let's take the key points one at a time.
The offences for which Richard Nicholas White has been convicted occurred over twenty years ago, when safeguarding procedures were clearly not adequate, something that is a matter of great regret to all of us now associated with Downside. The School has since fundamentally reviewed the way it approaches safeguarding issues, and continues to reform in order to provide the safest possible environment for those in its care. This will include a major re-structuring of Governance over the next year.
In 2010 the police and the safeguarding office of the Clifton Diocese, with the full co-operation of the Abbey, undertook a detailed review of historic cases that involved safeguarding concerns. It was after this re-opening of his case that Fr Nicholas was brought to court.
Before that, Richard Nicholas White had been through therapy and a risk assessment and had lived under restrictions. After Abbot Aidan Bellenger's election as Abbot in 2006, Richard Nicholas White continued to live under the same restrictions as during Abbot Richard Yeo's period of office (1998-2006), and remained withdrawn from public ministry and any direct contact with children.
I wish you all a Happy New Year.
Apud bonos iura pietatis
"Father Nicholas showed a fundamental betrayal of trust and, on behalf of the whole community, I apologise without reservation for what he has done."
Two points here. First, it is very convenient to put the blame onto Fr Nicholas, but it won't wash. The offences to which he pleaded guilty occurred after it was already known to the abbot of the time that he had already abused another boy. Despite this, he was not removed from contact from children, and the police were not informed. This abuse should never have happened. Even if the formal policies were inadequate, any person with the slightest concern for child safety must surely have realised leaving a known abuser in a position supervising children is wrong. It is so obvious, it shouldn't even need to be said.
It is also not Fr Aidan's job to apologise for what Fr Nicholas has done, only Fr Nicholas can do that. What the Abbot should be doing is apologising for what he himself has done or failed to do, or what the monastic community as a whole (including his predecessors as Abbot) have done or failed to do.
"We are conscious that the care of children is our paramount concern as educators and we are truly sorry that any child should have been abused here while under our care."
"Should have been abused"? Rather odd form of words here. It seems as if he is trying to shrink from the fact that at least two boys were abused at the school. If it turns out to have been only two, I'll be astonished. If Ealing Abbey is anything to go by, once the first one or two victims come forward, others will gather the courage to do the same. I suspect that this story will run and run.
"We must not underestimate the great damage such abuse can inflict on people and we will do everything possible to ensure that it does not happen again in the future."
That's a promise that the parents have a right to hold him to. I've taken a look today at the school's child protection policy. It has clearly been updated recently (August 2011), no doubt as a result of official scrutiny, both because of Downside's association with Ealing Abbey and St Benedict's and also because of the police investigation at Downside itself. I have to say that on first reading it seems to be considerably better than the travesty of a policy still being operated by St Benedict's School (how Lord Carlile ever thought the St Benedict's policy was as good as any in the country is still a mystery to me), but it is still short of best practice.
One absolutely key element of best practice is that all allegations of abuse of children by staff or volunteers, must without exception be reported promptly to the LADO. Whenever I look over a school's safeguarding policy, this is always the very first thing I look out for. The Downside policy requires that the school "consult" with the LADO rather than "report". At least it seems to be without the glaring exceptions present in the St Benedict's policy, but there is a distinction to be made between reporting and consulting, and Downside has come down the wrong side of that line.
"The offences for which Richard Nicholas White has been convicted occurred over twenty years ago, when safeguarding procedures were clearly not adequate, something that is a matter of great regret to all of us now associated with Downside."
The problem is that it seems that Fr Nicholas remained a monk at Downside (though he visited other monasteries for a time as well) until he was arrested. His offences were known to the Abbot of the time, and to all his successors, including Aidan Bellenger himself, and none of them thought it appropriate to report the matter to the police, social services or the LADO.
So an obvious question is to ask whether Fr Aidan is aware of alleged abuses committed by any other Downside monks, either past or present, which have not previously been reported to the police or social services. If he does know of any others, then since he has promised to "do everything possible to ensure that it does not happen again in the future" he must immediately contact the police in order to fulfil that promise.
The other point is that by emphasising how long ago the offences occurred he is making himself a hostage to fortune. He's implying that things are different now, and that this sort of thing won't have happened more recently. We shall see.
I would be more convinced by that assurance if I knew that the school had called in outside experts (such as the NSPCC or the Lucy Faithfull Foundation) to review the school's policies and provide additional child protection training to staff. Once a school gets into the habit of turning a blind eye to abuse, it is desperately difficult to change the culture into one of awareness, vigilance and automatic reporting. Just changing the written procedures isn't enough, they have to be zealously implemented.
The school had an inspection from the ISI in December 2010, an inspection of boarding provision from OFSTED at the same time, and a follow-up inspection from ISI to review progress in June 2011. In all three inspections safeguarding was rated inadequate and not meeting statutory requirements. Some of the criticisms are very severe and the shortcomings described extremely basic. So the issue of inadequate safeguarding is not a matter of an historical mistake long since corrected, it is a matter of shortcomings which extend to the present or at least the very recent past.
"In 2010 the police and the safeguarding office of the Clifton Diocese, with the full co-operation of the Abbey, undertook a detailed review of historic cases that involved safeguarding concerns."
It's not really enough that the abbey co-operated with a review of historic cases conducted by somebody else. There ought not to have been anything that needed to be reviewed - the case of Fr Nicholas was known to Fr Aidan, and he did nothing to report it until the police happened across the file when looking into another case.
After Abbot Aidan Bellengers election as Abbot in 2006, Richard Nicholas White continued to live under the same restrictions as during Abbot Richard Yeos period of office (1998-2006), and remained withdrawn from public ministry and any direct contact with children.
In January 2008, Father David Pearce was arrested, having abused while already under restricted ministry at Ealing Abbey. The descriptions of the abuses and grooming techniques are really very similar. The Charity Commission, the Independent Schools Inspectorate, the Schools Minister and Lord Carlile have all severely criticised this policy. And yet, it appears that when Fr David's abuses came to light, a fact which must surely have come to the attention of Fr Aidan, he continued with the policy which had so disastrously failed at Ealing. This must change - there must be a policy henceforth that any monk under restrictions because he is considered a risk to children must not live at the Abbey. As far as I can see, there is no such commitment in the Downside Child Protection Policy.
When Fr Nicholas stopped teaching at the school, the school had a statutory duty to return a Notification to the Teacher Misconduct Section of the Department for Education (or whatever it was called then) outlining the nature of the abuses he had committed.
Also, perhaps inadvertently, Aidan Bellenger has rather dumped is predecessor in it with the statement about restricted ministry. Because it is clear that it was Abbot Richard Yeo who set up the restricted ministry, and by the time Yeo was appointed to the Apostolic Visitation to Ealing, he will have known that one of the major criticisms of Abbot Martin Shipperlee was the fact that precisely the same policy failed at Ealing with respect to Father David Pearce. Knowing that he had operated the same policy at Downside, Yeo should have recused himself from the Visitation at the very start. It shouldn't have taken pressure from Lord Carlile to get him to offer to resign.
This letter from Abbot Aidan Bellenger shows every sign of being from somebody still in deep denial about the scale of abuse at the school he runs. There is every reason to believe that more bad news from and about Downside has yet to appear.