Sexual Abuse and the English Benedictine Congregation

Although I am no longer a member of the English Benedictine Congregation†, it is with sadness and a sense of deep shame that I have read of case after case of the sexual abuse of children and youths perpetrated by monks of the English Congregation.  As far as I know, no cloistered nun, whether a member of the EBC or any other Order or Congregation, has ever been accused, let alone found guilty, of abuse; so why the monks? I know that many monks have asked themselves that question and are just as baffled as I am. Shouldn’t we all be asking that question as well as setting up expensive, and as far as I can see, not necessarily effective safeguarding procedures?* Don’t we need to understand how such things come about, as well as trying to ensure that they never happen again?

I think most people recognize that abuse is a very complex subject with no simple explanation. We can argue that monks have opportunity: the schools and parishes they run bring them into contact with young people. But most people in contact with youngsters do not commit abuse. We can argue that there was insufficient screening of candidates for the monastic life, or insufficient supervision of those who were professed. Both are probably true, but there will always be those who somehow evade detection. We can argue that the monastic form of consecrated single chastity is unlivable, but there are many who have lived, and continue to live, it faithfully and generously. Ultimately, we are faced with the fact of sin.

Sin is always a personal choice, no matter how much we try to blame someone else or the circumstances of our life. The monk who does not live the form of consecrated single chastity to which he is vowed, who abuses another, has chosen to do so. He is responsible for his own actions; and as the gospel says, it would be better for him to have a millstone round his neck and be thrown into the sea. Anyone who listened to the men recounting the story of their experiences at Fort Augustus will have no difficulty recognizing the terrible consequences of sin— both for those who were abused and for good-living members of the monastic community. No matter that many boys enjoyed their schooldays at the Fort and have nothing but good memories. No matter that most monks do live godly lives. For those who suffered at the hands of monks, and for the brethren of those who did the abusing, there is only sadness, shame, and a pain that will never go away.

How do we put right so grave a wrong? I am not convinced that money is the answer, nor am I sure to what extent the monks of today can be expected to compensate people for what happened thirty, forty or fifty years ago. Yet I am sure of this. If Benedictines are part of the problem (as we undoubtedly are) we must also be part of the solution. As a nun, I know that my own contribution will be mainly at the level of prayer and personal sacrifice. The best antidote to what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI called ‘this filth in the Church’ is holiness of life and charity. Some will argue that is just more airy-fairy nonsense from the Church, a typically wishy-washy response, showing how far removed from reality we all are. I’d argue the converse. It is precisely because each of us knows we must face God daily in prayer, must live our whole lives under his scrutiny, that such a thing is possible. We cannot change the past, but we can allow grace to heal and redeem. Pray God we do.

† The Benedictine Order is, strictly speaking, not an Order as commonly understood. The monasteries of monks and nuns are autonomous, although many are grouped into congregations or federations, e.g the English Congregation, the Solesmes Congregation. Others, like us, come under the jurisdiction of the local diocesan bishop.

*In common with every other organization in the Church, we pay an annual fee to support the Safeguarding procedures now in place, widely regarded as among the most rigorous in the world, and undertake training, etc,  to try to ensure that abuse never occurs. Nevertheless, no system is infallible.


15 thoughts on “Sexual Abuse and the English Benedictine Congregation”

  1. I think this is a symptom of a malaise that runs through humanity whether cloistered or not. Sin is one word for it.
    I found this a balanced and humane and very poignant post. Thank you.

  2. I’m so sorry that the story chooses to label the whole Benedictine Order with the sins of one or two individuals, who were in an autonomous congregation. Both of whom I understand originate from Australia.

    And you are quite right about sin being an individual choice and sin/evil can exist within all of us, we need the strength of character to resist it.

    Your message that prayer is all that you can offer is realistic in the circumstances as I’m sure that many of us are praying alongside you.

    As for the Victims, I hope that they are receiving support from the appropriate services to help them through what must be a most traumatic time – and perhaps as one of the monk’s is still living, perhaps a trial if the evidence exists and a case can be made.
    I to am not sure that money can compensate for the harm done to them and the suffering which has gone on, lifelong – only God’s peace and love coming upon them can heal and reconcile.

    May they receive it bountifully.

    • If only it were merely “one or two individuals”!

      There have been child sex abuse scandals at Ealing, Buckfast, Ampleforth, Belmont, Downside and now Fort Augustus, each involving multiple monks. That’s every EBC monastery in this country except for Douai and Worth.

      Of the 31 Catholic priests convicted of child sex crimes over the last 10 years, eight (i.e. over a quarter) have been Benedictine monks from one or other of these houses.

      And in every single case, the reaction of the Abbot has been to cover up the abuse, perhaps move the monk to another house, but never to voluntarily report the matter to the authorities.

      That speaks to me not of a problem of one or two individuals but rather of something seriously wrong with the institutional fabric of the Benedictine order.

      • Sadly, I think you will find there were cases at Douai and Worth also. I’m not sure it’s quite fair to say ‘the Benedictine Order’ in general unless you have evidence of abuse elsewhere within monasteries of the Order. I do appreciate, however, that many people find the terms Order and Congregation and the relationship between the two confusing.

  3. I don’t want to whitewash in any way but certainly in the case of Downside which I know well the abuse has been greatly exaggerated. It’s been made to look as if it’s a nest of paedophiles but although there were, sadly, two real cases, the others could not be described as paedophilia in any real sense. The Church has got so jumpy about this it itself has treated minor cases as if they were major ones and so added to the hysteria. The much more serious abuse of children is our failure to tackle climate change which, if the great majority of scientists are right, is going to result in a terrifying future life for them.

    • I am appalled that any abuse would be characterized as exaggerated! ANY abuse is disgusting, and a SIN against humanity! To be a monk and abuse is inexcusable! One is still one too many. To compare climate change to abuse is beyond stupidity!

    • At Downside, the abuse was pretty bad, and the Abbey and the school’s management of it was even worse. Until the practice was stopped following an OFSTED/ISI inspection, they were in the habit of inviting pupils of the school into the monastery itself for overnight retreats – a monastery where known abusers were living supposedly on “restricted ministry”.

      Note that Richard White (Fr Nicholas White) instead of being reported to the police when his abuses became known, was sent north to Fort Augustus Abbey, and then after some years was allowed to return to Downside, a return supervised by the then Abbot, now Abbot President of the English Benedictine Congregation Fr Richard Yeo. White was sentenced to 5 years for his crimes, but was one of the known abusers in the monastery into which they were inviting children.

  4. A very thoughtful, thought-provoking, and as someone else said, poignant, entry.

    I work for, and with, an Order of Religious who have had a number of scandals fall upon them in the last decade, relating to the past 70 odd years – although my own communities have, thanks be to God, not been indicted, they nonetheless feel the pain of knowing that there are some in their religious family who very much did not adhere to their vows or Charism. I occasionally get asked why I/how can I work with them/the Order, and each time I answer that every family has black sheep, and who am I to judge the entire family based on the actions of a relative (statistical) minority. If I’m feeling particularly loquacious, I add the following anecdote: A member of my own blood family used to deal drugs, for many years. They dealt things like cocaine, to teenagers, even. I am probably one of the most anti-drugs people you’ll ever meet. As a child, I was not aware of their actions, and as a young adult, I could do very little even when I did become aware – we are not normally brought up with the idea that “shopping” a relative to the police is “ok”. It took me years to phone the police – not just because the first time i mentioned it to a man in uniform, i discovered the level of corruption going on. Should I be blamed for the actions, or consequences of those actions, of my relative? I’ve yet to meet someone who says yes. But when it comes to a religious order, far more voices cry yes – even when the situation is remarkably similar, albeit on a larger scale.

    And so, my reaction to the abuse scandal within the Church – and, indeed, without it, is remarkably similar to your own, as described here – and I’ve faced the same responses about being removed from reality, and, indeed, brainwashed – but I think it is quite the opposite.

  5. Isn’t it a matter of perspective? Of course all child abuse is terrible,action should be taken, and justice sought where possible. If so much time has passed that those involved are dead, however, is their still good reason for a media frenzy? Is that in the spirit of reconcilation?Do we dwell on the past, or look to the future?

    If many scientific predictions of the future with a different climate are to believed, millions of children will die of starvation. If those forecasts prove exaggerated, millions will die from lack of water, or in the wars that countries will fight over food, water, oil, and other raw materials. A different kind of suffering, but still one inflicted by our society today, and one which will affect many more than the far more widely publicised abuse cases. It is important to remember that the media are out to sell their publications, not publicise the tragedies of tomorrow that we are allowing to happen today.

  6. I was very surprised to hear of the abuses in Fort Augustus – I visited the school when it was still operating and felt the atmosphere was serene and warm. I hope that means the damage from the abuses was restricted to a few.

  7. Sadly abuse always seems to occur when people are in a position of authority/power over others who are vulnerable. Schools/hospitals/prisons/army bases are all institutions where people are at risk. The fact that priests/monks were (are) in authority means that a percentage of them chose to exploit the opportunity. Not all did, in the same way not every soldier will commit war crimes and not every nurse will be an abuser. Most abuse occurs in families – another institution but one where priests/religious can not usually be blamed. There will always be a risk – humans have a choice and can be very good at seeking to cover up their crimes against the vulnerable. Institutions are much better these days at safeguarding children – I know that in schools and parishes a great deal of work is done to prevent childen being at risk. This has come at a price. People are less willing to volunteer, there is less trust and I know priests do feel very nervous – in the past they could pop in to a school for a chat or be involved in social activities freely…

    The mistakes of the past are a lesson to us all and beyond safeguarding and care for victims we can only pray – even for the perpetrators. They are guilty of dreadful things and will ultimately have to face God in that knowledge.

  8. The cover up by the Abbots and Priors of these Monks is almost as scandalous as the crimes. The irresponsible lack of duty of care of the Abbot president is scandalous. D.Yeo has been President throughout and ,as Lord Carlisle pointed out in the last inquiry, has been party to the cover up.

  9. Thank you for all your comments. There’s nothing for me to add except to say, as Carmela already has, that even one case of abuse is too many, and to acknowledge that abbots and priors have been among those convicted of abuse as well as failing to deal with the situation as, at least with hindsight, they ought. A special thank-you to Danielle for sharing her insight.

  10. I have read these comment with interest. I spent six years at Fort Augustus and I do not think that the claims are an exaggeration, not from my experiences.
    Abuse takes many forms, in my case more mental and violent. I must also point out that some of the lay staff were equally as bad as the monastic. The media have focused on one area, and yes to sell papers and claim high ratings

    Joseph, you are right; Humans have a choice. My experience at the Abbey was one where those charged with my care chose to ignore the abuse and in some cases encouraged this by verbal humiliation and violence over and above the standard corporal punishments acceptable at that time, these acts of violence done in-front of my peers. Those men chose to hurt me by use of words and by the use of fists.

    I was slowly and systematically broken, my self-esteem was removed and I was left with a deep seated depression that have struggled with for thirty six years. My childhood was taken from me and replaced with despair. My mother was lied to about my wellbeing. I was not just hurt by those who neglected my mental health, I was failed by the community as a whole. After all the school was part of that monastic community and those adults in the community must share the responsibility, we were just children.

    I have to take issue with the statement; ‘The much more serious abuse of children is our failure to tackle climate change’ These are two very different issues. You cannot compare climate change with the abuse that went on at Fort Augustus and in other areas of the catholic church and organisations beyond the church. the fact is this was abuse of children.

    I have held back here as I do not wish to use this as a forum to attack anyone, I just wish to be heard and set my account of the events at the Abbey School.

  11. The scandal of the catholic church in general and the Benedictines in particular is not that some monks and priests have abused. Any occupation that involves the care of children will attract its share of abusers.

    The problem with the Catholic church was and is its approach when allegations of abuse come to light. Their policy has been always to handle the matter “in house” and not to tell the authorities. While this might have been well meaning, in fact the only people this protected were the abusers, who went on to abuse again and again in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be reported to the police. Moreover, after a scandal priests were moved on to another unsuspecting parish, where they were free to abuse all over again

    The church’s policies and procedures could hardly have been better designed to cause the maximum amount of harm to the largest possible number of victims had they been written with this express purpose in mind. And it was clearly obvious to many senior churchmen that it was all going badly wrong, and yet nobody did anything. That is the scandal of the Catholic church.

    Those of us who have worked to bring the matter to light are routinely verbally attacked. For instance, my own efforts have been in the context of Ealing Abbey and St Benedicts School Ealing, which has had a dreadful child sex abuse scandal spanning decades, where a monk and two teachers have so far been convicted and the previous Abbot is on the run from the police. The headmaster of the school chose his prizegiving day speech to say the following to the assembled pupils and parents.

    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.

    The same headmaster is still in charge of the school. the same Abbot is still in charge of the monastery. The school’s child protection policy still contains “wriggle room” that would allow it to be interpreted in a way that avoids the need for reporting allegations of abuse.

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