Friday, September 16, 2016

Letter on Child Protection

I'm not going to comment on the news about Ampleforth College; but today I am reposting this from January 2012, about Downside.


This weekend the Catholic Herald has published a letter of mine on the subject of 'Child Protection'. It responds to an article by Will Heaven.

Will Heaven (Comment, Jan 20th) tells us that monastic schools, like Downside, where there have been failures of child protection, should be handed over to lay trustees. By the same logic, I assume he would want the many lay schools plagued by such failures to be handed over to monks.

We need to look, not at the clerical or lay status of trustees, but at their attitudes and policies. Unfortunately the leadership of Catholic schools appears to be following the example of its secular counterpart, both by imposing explicit sex education on our children and by an increasing reluctance to expect staff to live in accord with Church teaching.

The secular model is to promote anarchic sexual liberalism in schools, balanced by an hysterical concern for the procedures of child protection. This is not going to solve the problem of the sexual exploitation of children in the long term. Until the Catholic school sector is prepared to buck this trend decisively I, like an increasing number of Catholic parents, will be teaching my children at home.

Yours sincerely,

Joseph Shaw

Two things struck me about Heaven's article. The first was his idea that the problems at Downside would go away if the monks were no longer the trustees. It is reasonable I suppose that a religious order which makes a hash of an apostolate hands it over to someone else, but Heaven's suggestion smacks of anti-clericalism. How, exactly, would having lay control help? Hasn't he noticed all the non-religious, indeed non-Catholic schools which have had child protection issues? It is the attitudes and policies of the individuals in positions of authority which are important, not whether they wear clerical dress. On this, Jonathan West of 'Confessions of a Skeptic' agrees with me, in his Tablet article this week and his comments under Heaven's article: lay leadership is not a 'silver bullet'. (Tablet link for subscribers.)

I have another concern about the attempt to separate monastic schools from the monasteries which founded them. If this happens we will have two institutions sharing a site, but nothing else. It will be entirely reasonable for the monastic community to ask why they are allowing this alien institution to take up so much of their land, rent free. Why not turn it into luxury flats? Hybrid models, in which the Abbot appoints some trustees and some unnamed person others, seem to be a recipe for permanent conflict.

The other thing which struck me was Heaven's jaunty reference to Downside going mixed. He writes:

There is no question about it: Downside School is still flourishing. A few years ago, I wrote in this newspaper about its “second spring”, which occurred after 2005 when it allowed girls to join. I noted that the school was livelier and noisier than before and was at its capacity of 430 pupils.
Alas, Downside – as a community – is now experiencing an unexpectedly harsh winter.

You might think that the sudden onset of colder weather might make Heaven wonder whether 2005 was spring after all. For why did they they let in girls, to a school which had been single-sex since its foundation a century earlier? Did the monks suddenly feel a special charism to look after the emotional needs of adolescent girls? I don't think so. Letting in girls enabled it to bring number back up to capacity: oh, that's it!

I don't blame the monks of Downside in particular, they were just following the trend. The point is that this is a trend in which the interests of pupils were sacrificed to financial considerations, and to educational fashion. No one was ignorant, by 2005, of the educational benefits to girls of being in a all-girls' school; the subject had been studied to death. Catholic boys' schools, usually with superior brand-recognition and resources, continued to undermine the girls' schools by going mixed because it was in their interests, not in the girls'.

If anyone is interested in the Church's teaching on co-education, they can look at Pius XI on the subject in 1939 (Divine illius magistri):

68. False also and harmful to Christian education is the so-called method of "coeducation." This too, by many of its supporters, is founded upon naturalism and the denial of original sin; but by all, upon a deplorable confusion of ideas that mistakes a leveling promiscuity and equality, for the legitimate association of the sexes.

This is related, by the denial of original sin, to the real elephant in the room, which I mention in my letter, which is the sexualisation of children. The motto of the secular educational establishment is 'Do whatever you are comfortable doing; don't let anyone make you feel guilty about it; don't let anyone do to you what you're not comfortable with'. This places the burden of child protection on the children themselves. Since the only standard of what is abusive is the child's perception, accusations of abuse are justified almost by definition. By the same token, the 'grooming' activities of abusers, in which they attempt to convince their victims that abuse is really ok, have been adopted as school policy: nothing is not ok, children, if you just accept it. This is why we have the extraordinary situation in which schools are deliberately sexualising children, and then crying blue murder at the least plausible accusation.

The Catholic Church has a great opportunity here, because the secular orthodoxy has become so extreme, and so incoherent, that at least some people will give an alternative a hearing. The Natural Law tells us what is abusive, and we have the intellectual resources to create an environment for children in which abuse is less likely to happen. Why not do it, and make a virtue of it?

I see Oona Stanard is stepping down from the Catholic Education Service. Perhaps her replacement can give these matters some serious consideration.

Full disclosure: I am a Fellow of St Benet's Hall, a Hall of Oxford University whose trustees are the Abbot and Council of Ampleforth Abbey.


  1. Jonathan West10:13 pm

    For all schools, having a governing body with a wide range of experience is a good idea. To that extent I agree with Lord Carlile's proposals for St Benedict'S School.

    The separation of the school and monastery (physically rather than organisationally), in the case of both Downside and Ealing is necessary because of the fact that monks remain resident who have been found to be a threat to the safety of children and have been placed on restricted ministry as a result.

    In fact, placing a monk or priest on restricted ministry and leaving him living next door to a school is asking for trouble, and in the case of Ealing it duly came whan Father David Pearce was arrested having abused a child while under restrictions.

    The principles of good policies for child protection can be very briefly stated:

    1. All allegations and incidents of abuse must always be reported promptly in writing to the secular authorities. This includes matters which are not themselves criminal offences. For instance, a sexually inappropriate remark towards a pupil isn't a crime, but it might indicate an unhealthy sexual interest in children, or even be an indication of grooming. It needs to be nipped in the bug before it goes any further.

    2. The welfare of the children must always take precedence over the reputation of the school.

    3. Those known to be a threat to the safety of children must not be permitted to live on site.

    Both St Benedict's and Downside are still some way from implementing a policy founded on these three principles

  2. Joseph Shaw8:57 am

    Dear Mr West, I don't disagree with you exactly. But the only way a physical separation between the school site and non-safe individuals is for the latter to leave the community (whether canonically or for practical purposes). That is what should have happened. Setting up physical barriers and signs saying 'out of bounds' is ludicrous.
    One problem I think everyone acknowledges now is that until recently, and even now, offenders were treated far too leniently, being allowed to remain 'on restricted ministry' and so on. The fact is that sex abusers are not suited to any pastoral role. They are psychologically unable to exercise spiritual paternity.
    There used to be penal monasteries for serious offenders who did not want to be laicised, which would be strictly enclosed. No longer, alas.

  3. Jonathan West5:13 pm

    I agree with you. And yet both Ealing and Downside persist in keeping monks at the abbey on restricted ministry. It is ludicrous and is clear eveidence that neither place is yet serious about child protection.

    And if two places so much in the news can continue to get away with this, it does make me wonder how good is the practice in all the hundreds of schools and parishes which don't have such a media spotlight on them.

  4. Dr. Shaw,

    Is the mention of Pius XI to denial of original sin, in reference to concupiscence, or sex education? I always thought it referred to the absurdity of expecting nothing to happen after putting young people of the opposite sex together.

  5. Anonymous2:58 am

    And now St. Benet's has gone co-ed. Seems like a big mistake all around. How is a place supposed to be forming monks by having them live in close quarters with a bunch of 18 to 20 something year old women?