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.