Downside - you cannot quite see what became my room for a year in this picture. Credit Matthew Britton CC-BY-2.0

The report into historic reports of sexual abuse of children at Ampleforth and Downside has been released. There’s a personal interest here as I attended Downside from 1976 to 1981. The report confirms what I thought I knew about the incidence of such abuse. At least as far as I knew/know, as far as the report has uncovered, it wasn’t happening there at that time. The Great Subject of sexual gossip at that time was – and presumably can continue to be – the exact nature of the relationship between one monk/housemaster and Joanna Lumley. Not that anything was going on then, but what had it been?

This is obviously of no comfort to those who were abused in later years but does confirm – or fail to disprove – a contention of mine. Schools are hotbeds of gossip, if something had been happening it would have been generally known. Not perhaps among the staff but among the boys who would have been in the target group. That there was no such gossip is not proof that I am simply unobservant. As, as far as we all know right now, it wasn’t actually happening, a good explanation for the lack of knowledge of it.

Monks should be stripped of control at two leading Benedictine schools after sex abuse was covered up for 40 years, a report has found.

Leaders at Ampleforth in North Yorkshire and Downside in Somerset hid allegations of “appalling” abuse against pupils as young as seven to protect the church’s reputation.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) on Thursday published a damning report on the English Benedictine Congregation, which has ten monasteries.

There most certainly are damning parts of it. Others, Downside especially, seem less so.

The report highlights the evidence heard by the Inquiry of appalling sexual abuse inflicted over decades on children as young as seven at Ampleforth and 11 at Downside.

It also concludes that there was a culture of acceptance of abusive behaviour and the prioritisation of monks and their reputations over the protection of children.

The report is here. I only know about Downside in any manner but this doesn’t seem quite as damning to me as it seems to some others.

Allegations
21. There have been a number of accounts of child sexual abuse in relation to Downside
between the 1960s and the present day, some of which, like Ampleforth, have also involved
allegations of physical abuse. This will be included within the allegations, where appropriate.
This section focuses on the key accounts to illustrate Downside’s response to child
protection and safeguarding issues across approximately 50 years.

Well, yes, but child sexual abuse over 50 years is stretching it a bit.

Accounts of child sexual abuse made before the Nolan Report (1960–2001)
Anselm Hurt (1960s)
28. On 12 February 1969, Fr Aelred Watkin, headmaster of Downside School, wrote to
Fr Anselm Hurt, who was at that time based in Liverpool, to reprimand him for taking four
Downside pupils to the pub (the Bell Inn).29 Anselm Hurt sought to justify the incident,30 but
on 24 February 1969 Fr Aelred Watkin wrote to him:
“You know as well as I do, it is not simply a question of a visit to the Bell. Surely you cannot
imagine that I am unaware of such things as your drinking whisky with the school prefects
until the early hours of the morning, and to your room on the first floor of the King’s Arms
– though I have no wish to go back into the past, even the recent past.31”
29. Later that year Anselm Hurt returned to Downside and was appointed to the position of
teacher and assistant housemaster during the autumn term of 1969.32 Shortly after the end of
the autumn term, Fr Aelred became aware of an incident between Anselm Hurt and a 16-yearold
pupil, RC-A216.33 Having been alone drinking beer together in Hurt’s room in the school,
Hurt had invited RC-A216 to his room in the monastery where mutual masturbation had
taken place. Hurt admitted the incident to Abbot Wilfrid and was sent away from Downside
immediately. Fr Aelred also discovered that another pupil had said that he and Hurt had slept in
the same bed in a private house during the half-term holiday in November 1969. The details are
not clear, but Hurt’s behaviour was such that this latter boy, who was 17 at the time, had left
the bed and chosen to sleep on the floor instead.34 We do not know whether Hurt made any
admissions about this.

Would we call that abuse these days? Sure, we would, it’s a breach of that legal duty of care. Specifically, teachers, being in a position of power over pupils, must not have sex with them whatever anyone seems to think about consent at the time.

The past is though, another country, they do things differently there. Worth noting that those alleged sexual encounters, if they weren’t between pupil and teacher, would be entirely legal today. 16 is indeed the age of consent. It’s also entirely true that it wasn’t back then, it was 21 (the law having changed from any and every homosexual act being illegal only in 1967 after Wolfenden). We thus have a number of possible descriptions of the acts themselves. A repulsive betrayal of the modern – and not then – legal duty of care. A repulsive condemnation of normal sexual variability – illegal then but not now. But the one thing it isn’t is child abuse.

The incident and its dealing with might not accord with current day best practice but then past, another country and all that. The word was passed around and there aren’t other incidents by the same perpetrator.

We then move on to:

Nicholas [born Richard] White (1985–1989)
52. The case of Fr Nicholas White, born Richard White, spans approximately 20 years.
During the mid to late 1980s he committed several child sexual abuse offences. In the 1990s
he lived away from Downside, until he returned in the later 1990s

And that’s when what we all really would call child abuse started. Over the years that the various inquiries have been going on I’ve written occasionally about it all. And gained in response two sets of replies. From my contemporaries a puzzlement about the very existence of any problem, from those a decade and more younger an insistence that it was a very real problem. All of which rather accords with what the report is saying.

As is well known Laurence Dallaglio’s experience at Ampleforth was very different but that’s in a different part of the report.

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Rhoda Klapp
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Rhoda Klapp

What happened to the previous set of comments? No good to me being half of The Spike and Rhoda Show if I can’t read my wisdom afterwards.

Rhoda Klapp
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Rhoda Klapp

Oops, that was in the Other Place.

Spike
Member

The bottom line is that an organization’s credibility requires that it remove mentors who abuse their positions to diddle their wards. Not that tickling someone, or having a creepy mentor, ruins a young life by rendering it imperfect. In this case, the passage of fifty years should settle this. Sexual abuse of a subordinate by the most powerful person in the US was trivialized in 1996, among other things with talking points that the investigator was more perverted than the culprit. Two decades later, it was revived and supercharged, nothing having changed except the party in power. (If anything, exposing… Read more »