Saturday, 14 January 2012

Truths and half-truths - the abbot's letter analysed.

Let's start at the beginning of the Abbot's letter. 
We have received our Ofsted progress report, which is on our website and which is attached to this letter. It is very short and I hope you will read it in its entirety. It concludes that ‘robust risk-assessments are in place to ensure the safety of pupils from adults who should not have unsupervised access to children’, and highlights improved security, a greater culture of awareness among staff of safeguarding through extensive training and found, overall, that Downside meets all the required standards of safeguarding."
Lots of issues here. The first thing is that the Abbot is being a trifle economical with the truth. He's not actually lying, but he is giving a misleading impression.

The inspection arrangements for Downside are a little bit peculiar, because it is both a member of the Independent Schools Council and a boarding school. So OFSTED is responsible for inspecting welfare and safeguarding aspects of the boarding school provision, while the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) is responsible for inspecting educational matters across the whole school, and safeguarding and welfare matters as they apply to the day pupils.

OFSTED and ISI normally arrange for a joint inspection visit, and then they each issue their own reports for their own areas of responsibility. There was a routine joint inspection of the school in December 2010. The OSTED report can be found here, and the ISI report is here. The ISI report is prefaced by the report of a further follow-up inspection in June 2011. OFSTED has not produced a report of the follow-up inspection. All three reports are unremittingly awful concerning safeguarding, detailing multiple and serious failures to meet statutory requirements

There was a further joint follow-up inspection at the end of November 2011, and OFSTED has just produced its report of it. This is the report the Abbot has included in his email and posted on the school website. The report concludes that "The school has made good progress and now meets all the national minimum standards for boarding schools."

Having met national minimum standards following a year of effort after shortcomings were first uncovered is hardly something to crow about. Furthermore, only the OFSTED report of the latest follow-up inspection has been published. We are still awaiting the ISI report. We might be waiting a while yet. The Times said yesterday that the DfE is taking an urgent interest in the school. According to the Times:
Inspection reports on Downside, which is run by the Benedictine order and charges boarders fees of £26,000 per year, refer specifically to seven monks who have worked at the school at different times and whose behaviour has been “a cause for concern”.

The figure includes two former employees who despite worries about their past conduct, continued to live in Downside Abbey which shares the school grounds. The practice of allowing senior school pupils to have overnight stays in the abbey recently ended because of child protection concerns.

It is thought to be the presence of the former employees, in apparent breach of child protection policies, that has alarmed the DfE. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, previously expressed concern over the handling of a similar situation at St Benedict’s School in Ealing, West London, which has also been at the centre of an abuse scandal.
(As it happens, it is probably six monks and a layman, but that is a relatively minor detail.)

It is four years since Father David Pearce was arrested at Ealing Abbey having committed a sexual assault on a pupil while living at Ealing Abbey on restricted ministry. It was reported on BBC Points West earlier this week that two monks are still living at Downside Abbey on restricted ministry. When the OFSTED report says that "robust risk-assessments are in place to ensure the safety of pupils from adults who should not have unsupervised access to children" it appears to mean these two monks. I suspect that the DfE had a fit when they found out about the monks still there on restricted ministry, and that somebody in OFSTED is going deeply to regret putting that phrase in a report which states that the school has met national minimum requirements.
Media interest has greatly increased since the conviction and subsequent sentencing of Richard White (known at Downside as Fr Nicholas White) last week for child abuse committed when he was working at the school in the late 1980s. This raises questions about what was done during the period between the abuse and Fr Nicholas’s eventual conviction. He received counselling and therapy and conformed entirely with all the restrictions that were imposed on him. However, the standards of supervision and communication with the relevant outside agencies have changed over the years and his case would not be handled in the same way today as it was in the past.
Abbot Martin Shipperlee thought that Father David Pearce had "conformed entirely with all the restrictions that were imposed on him" until the day the police came along and arrested Pearce for abusing somebody while on restrictions. Abbot Aidan has left something of a hostage to fortune here, if it subsequently turns out that White was able to gain access to pupils, for instance during their overnight retreats in the monastery. The ISI and OFSTED reports show that Abbot Aidan is in no position to know whether White was obeying his restrictions and in no position to claim credit for it if he was, because the monitoring of him was chaotic bordering on nonexistent.

And that last quoted sentence is really quite nauseating. He is saying in effect that back in the 1980s, it was considered normal and acceptable for the Abbey to harbour a criminal who had committed a sex crime against one of the children in the Abbey's care, and to allow that criminal to continue teaching in the school. Ponder that.
There is a piece in today’s Times, on which we were not asked to comment, which takes no account of the recent positive Ofsted report. I am writing to The Times to correct the misleading impressions given in the article. 
In saying that they were not asked to comment on the Times article, he is implying that The Times is behaving unjustly/unprofessionally or is guilty of biased reporting. This is guff. Today's story is not about Downside, it is about the activities of the DfE and the Charity Commission, so there would have been no reason to contact the school. The Abbot knows this perfectly well.

As part of our response to safeguarding concerns, I made all the monks’ records, stretching back for half a century, available to the police and the diocesan safeguarding office in 2010 as part of a wider review of historic cases and to help ensure that nothing remained unknown and undealt with.
At Ealing Abbey, one monk has been convicted and two lay teachers. Child sex abuse is not the sole preserve of monks. Moreover, child sex abuse committed by lay teachers is just as devastating to the victims. Ealing Abbey has been found to have destroyed the employment records of teachers who departed because of complaints of child abuse, specifically the records of John Maestri and Stephen Skelton. If Abbot Aidan has only made available the records of the monks, he has a lot more records that still need to be looked through, if of course Downside hasn't followed the example of Ealing Abbey and destroyed the more inconvenient pieces of paper.

Two other monks have been subject to investigation and, whilst the allegations against them, dating from the early 1990s, were founded, no prosecutions were brought. Both have had restrictions imposed on their ministry in order to protect children and are living in the monastery under supervision approved by the outside agencies. This situation is kept under constant review.
This is confirmation of the statement in the BBC Points West bulletin from earlier this week. We have two monks (unnamed), both with credible allegations against them concerning child abuse, who have been living in the monastery under restriction for the past 20 years. And in that time, successive Abbots have known this, and until they were stopped by the ISI they continued a policy of inviting pupils into the monastery for overnight retreats, even after they heard the news of Father David Pearce's arrest at Ealing. Reckless doesn't even begin to describe it.

We are truly sorry that children and young people have been abused by those whom they should have been able to trust. We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that such things do not happen again.
This commitment seems to be a very recent one. The section of the June 2011 ISI report titled "Safeguarding matters generally (raising concern)" starts by saying:

The school is aware that its procedures and practices have not been, and are still not, up to the standard required in all respects, despite the steps taken since the inspection and the safeguarding audit.  Given that 6 months have passed since the inspection, the expected sense of urgency was not particularly apparent, and such progress that has been made has generally been slow and, in some cases, still not compliant.

The summary of the report emphasises this by saying

... overall progress to implement the steps outlined by the school in its action plan have generally been slow at best and, in some areas, it is hard to identify specific improvements that have been achieved in six months.

The situation is very simple. He's been found out, and eventually was presented with an ultimatum. He had to promise that it won't ever happen again and get moving on the necessary changes in procedure, or probably have the DfE insist that the school be closed. They have that power, though they haven't ever used it. He's chosen under duress to make the promise.

But changing the culture and attitudes of an organisation is much harder than writing down a few new procedures. The Summary section of the ISI follow-up report mentions that "Certainly the Head is keen to get things right and achieve full regulatory compliance", but most conspicuously it does not say the same of the Abbot.

If the school is to become and remain safe for current and future generations of pupils, more than a few changes to written procedures will be needed. A whole new attitude and culture will need to be fostered, so that the very idea of hiding abuses and abusers in future becomes unthinkable.

Given what Abbot Aidan Bellenger has written, I have to question whether he has the will and determination to lead the Abbey and the school into this new era, or whether once the journalists have lost interest, the school will gradually slip back into its old ways and endanger the pupils all over again. If he lacks the will to make the necessary changes in attitudes, in himself as well as others, then in the interest of the Abbey, the school and most particularly the pupils, he should stand aside and allow the task to be taken up by somebody who does have that will.

It is up to everybody - monks, staff, parents, pupils and OGs, to work together to see that attitudes change at Downside. Safeguarding is everybody's business.

1 comment:

  1. It should not have taken OFSTED or anyone else to persuade the school to change its approach. I was at Downside in the late 70s. During this period I neither heard nor saw any evidence or rumours of abuse. However bullying and poor behaviour went unchallenged and I am sure that this culture of weak leadership was a contributory factor to whatever was in fact going on, either at the time, or shortly after.

    Recent events have been widely reported and there is wide debate about the accuracy of reporting as to who knew what and when, why did the authorities not act, and what point did the school respond or fail to respond to the various inspection reports.

    In short there is a hideous confusion and to my mind this is the collective fault not of lazy journalism but of the school and abbey who, by allowing information to emerge on the drip, have come across as weak and evasive. There is even a suggestion that the school may have sought legal advice in the past as to whether or not it was obliged to refer matters to the police. Forget the legalities, where is the morality in that? The result is that those I speak to, catholic and non catholic, wearily express the view ‘here we go again’.

    The various letters from the school refer to ‘abuse’. It was far more than that, the use of weak and euphemistic terminology just perpetuates the impression that the Downside authorities just do not get it. The conduct was criminal and it was ignored by the school; until a full and frank admission is made of that fact there will be those who cannot forgive or forget and I cannot blame them. The Abbot refers to the fact that procedures were different in the past as if this somehow excuses the behaviour of previous abbots and headmasters. Since when has the failure to report overt criminality to the police ever been a moral option when practiced by those with direct responsibility for the safety and welfare of children? What happened in the 80s might have been legal as far as governance was concerned, it was totally wrong and the school needs to deal with this.

    The most recent letter from the abbot does name some of those involved but also indicates that two others remain in the monastery after allegations were shown to be ‘founded’. This means that there remain in the abbey two individuals whose behaviour constitutes a threat. To what extent we do not know, as we have no idea what happened or why no prosecution was brought. The previous failure to prosecute Nicholas White is not a great precedent. Meanwhile we are expected to trust the fact that the safeguarding procedures are now sufficient and to be told that the school now reaches the ‘minimum standards’ is hardly reassuring. The two monks are not named. While I cannot comment on the legitimacy of the claim that to name them might risk identifying victims, the outcome is that the taint of suspicion remains attached to all members of the community. While I was at Downside I came across some really good people who were men of God and cared about others. The recent letter from the Abbot indicates that at least one monk in whose company I spent a great deal of time was subsequently guilty of abuse. I never saw any evidence of this but it is a pretty awful revelation, perhaps less to me than to my parents who trusted him. One personal effect on me is that is that I am now in a position of looking at the community and wondering if any others whom I trusted and respected are now tainted. Perhaps this says more about me than about the community but I cannot help it.
    In conclusion, would I send my kids to Downside at the moment? Absolutely not. Would I recommend it to others? What do you think?