Twenty years ago, Douai, a monastic boarding school in West Berkshire, greatly surprised dad and mom with an statement that it became ‘no longer feasible’. Pupil numbers had fallen thru the ground — underneath two hundred — and the sums didn’t add up. So four centuries of history have been introduced to an quit and the boys were sent packing. Now the ones inside the recognise worry approximately two more prestigious establishments — Ampleforth, the so-referred to as Catholic Eton in North Yorkshire, and Downside, its greater modest Somerset relation.
As a former scholar of the latter I’ve been hoping the rumours are unfounded. The faculty, like Ampleforth, is a notable area that produces fine, nicely-rounded boys and women. The clergymen, for the most element, are decent guys, trying to stay their vocations faithfully. I followed my two older brothers to Downside and, after the college commenced taking women in 2005, my more youthful sister went too, and flourished. But for all my gratitude to the priests, I worry for them.
The symptoms are not good. Late ultimate month, the TES revealed that Ampleforth were issued with an legitimate caution note from the Department for Education. The government’s letter, dated 11 May, stated that if the school did no longer give you an action plan to bring its child protection standards up to scratch, and type out its management and control, ‘the Secretary of State may additionally get rid of the faculty from the Register of Independent Schools’. In DfE communicate, this means shut the area down. Thankfully, the college got here up with a plan in time and is ‘enforcing agreed moves’ earlier than the inspectors call once more.
But this shows the scale of a greater trendy crisis. First of all, scholar numbers at both Ampleforth and Downside are dwindling. At Ampleforth, the full headcount has shriveled from 611 in 2013 to 546 this 12 months: no longer a great signal, even though no longer yet disastrous (it dropped to 480 inside the early 1990s and recovered). At Downside, the variety has fallen to 375 — which is whilst, I’m informed, the bursar starts losing sleep, partly because of the reductions he offers on fees. Both places have all but closed their prep schools, which used to feed the senior faculties with a good chew of pupils each September. It was in advance this yr that Ampleforth announced the closure of St Martin’s (at Gilling Castle), which begins at Year 2. Soon Ampleforth, like Downside, will best accommodate Years 7 and eight on the primary web site, in addition to the senior pupils.
Then, lamentably, there’s the sex abuse scandal, which arrived like the angel of death at each schools around the turn of the millennium. But those awful memories — of abuse, cowl-up and institutional blunder — were raked once more just before Christmas last 12 months at Theresa May’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), in hearings that lasted weeks. For some reason, Ampleforth and Downside had been changed into case research. At noon on Thursday 9 August, IICSA will post its intervening time report on them — so be careful for damning headlines.
Effectively, the priests were put on trial at IICSA, with some distance greater prosecution than defence. But the hearings, which vintage boys mentioned at length on closed Facebook corporations, highlighted a structural trouble with monastic schools: that the perpetrators of historic abuse, and those who didn’t address it, are often round decades later. Unlike teachers at different faculties, they make a lifelong vow to stay with one community. A monk who become accused of abusing a young disabled woman throughout the 1980s lower back to Downside as a famous chaplain within the early 2000s, after I turned into a student. Another discovered with illegal pornography on a laptop inside the Nineteen Nineties turned into later, absurdly, put in price of the monastery’s younger beginners (he become eventually despatched to prison). A monk headmaster of mine, whom I agree with to be naive in preference to cynical, determined to declutter a college basement in 2012 in the course of the vacations. He took wheelbarrows of antique paperwork to the monastic gardens — along with instructors’ non-public documents going returned many years, containing God is aware of what evidence — and made a bonfire. Well, he instructed the inquiry, ‘monks have a subculture of guide labour’. Whoops-a-daisy. He’s been at Downside, with few interruptions, considering he turned into a teenager.
In all this mess, it’s essential to be aware the best in addition to the terrible. In the worst and maximum broadly mentioned case of abuse, relationship to the 1980s, a monk took a younger boy to Downside’s monastic library and again and again abused him, paying his victim 50p a time. He was jailed in 2012. Well, every Sunday night, in upper 6th form, I went to the equal library with a monk — for one-on-one philosophy tutorials, honestly because I had expressed an interest in studying the challenge at college. He became simply being kind, however it’s a tale that provokes raised eyebrows and ho-ho jokes from my non-Catholic friends. Such kindnesses do nothing to cancel out abuse — however I wish IICSA recalls the abusers are in a tiny minority; that maximum clergymen care deeply approximately their expenses.
The truth is that after the sex abuse scandal arrived, the two abbeys have been culturally on the again foot. Ampleforth, as soon as a beacon of northern Catholicism, was home to 169 clergymen within the Sixties thanks to a put up-conflict increase in vocations. Now it has 55. When I remaining visited Downside, for midnight mass, there had been best 8 monks in the abbey. It’s one of the maximum stunning neo-Gothic churches in England but it’s beginning to feel enormously big for the network that lives there.
There become a time, we students had been often informed, while the captain of the school’s 1st XV rugby team could take into account becoming a member of the monastery. Those days, while Evelyn Waugh used to wait the Easter offerings, now seem very remote. I understand the English Benedictine Congregation is soon to send Downside reinforcements, such as a new Prior from Belmont Abbey to guide the community. This would had been not possible a decade ago.
o a few human beings, there is an anti–Catholic whiff approximately what’s occurring (hardly ever a stunning reaction given the abbeys’ ancient links to the martyrs of the English reformation). In April, the Charity Commission despatched a solicitor into Ampleforth to run the school’s safeguarding arrangements. It became an emergency degree remarkable in a first-rate public college, and a worrying one. The Independent Schools Inspectorate followed the following month with its own criticism — that new body of workers have been now not being checked ‘with sufficient rigour’ and governance and management weren’t properly enough. North Yorkshire police additionally launched a brand new investigation into safeguarding this yr, reportedly on top of 3 other investigations into historic intercourse abuse allegations.
And then, remaining month, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference joined in, postponing Ampleforth. Some Catholics see this as a persecution. I don’t, however is there a concern in those companies, publish-Jimmy Savile, that they may someday be stuck out for not being tough enough? That they must hold up with, or even outdo, each different’s criticisms? That could make greater experience.
There are different elements at play too. Monastic schools — and the abbeys that based them — are suffering due to the fact they once had a freak business model which can’t be repeated within the cutting-edge age. For a long term, most of the personnel were monks, who wished neither salaries nor accommodation, besides a cell within the monastery, or a room and a basin on the quit of a college corridor. Now, maximum of the team of workers are lay people, and the faculties have to compete on same phrases with the secular opposition, which now welcomes Catholics. These days, Eton has its own Catholic chaplain, and you’re much more likely to discover the vintage recusant family names — Weld, Petre, Stonor, Stourton, Throckmorton — on its registers than right now-grand Catholic colleges.
There are tested approaches for Catholic impartial colleges to compete, particularly while the non secular orders that based them gracefully withdraw from the control. Note the fulfillment of St Mary’s Ascot, with a lay headmistress who moved there from Eton, stellar educational results, and now not a nun in sight. Sadly, if IICSA hearings proved some thing, it turned into that Benedictine clergymen are not very good at dealing with college admin: they’re often cussed while managing the authorities (police or local councils particularly — now not an amazing look) and battle to hold up with minimal safeguarding requirements (‘geek lifestyle’, one monk headmaster used to call the field-ticking that had engulfed the teaching profession).
This may be all the way down to the small quantity of final priests. As an old lay instructor of mine advised IICSA, bluntly: ‘The preference of headmaster turned into restrained to the monastery, and this challenge appeared to have led to a succession of men being appointed who were unsuitable (both in man or woman or temperament) for the put up.’
Things have progressed, but there’s some manner to move. Downside’s first lay headmaster, a devout Catholic and extreme instructional, left the faculty final yr, complaining of a ‘tradition of monastic superiority’. He’s directly to some thing here. Partly because of their gothic environment, England’s Benedictine monks have given in to a type of fake-aristocratic grandeur (charmingly, they often speak with clipped Bertie Wooster accents, as though the second one half of the 20th century never passed off). More critically, they feel superior as it has a tendency to be real — they are still in final govt and monetary control.
This is on the coronary heart of the modern drama, at Downside particularly. The clergymen clearly have too much energy: they are the sole trustees of the abbey agree with, which runs the monastery and faculty. In reality, it’s the precise set-up that — in his 2011 inquiry into St Benedict’s Ealing, a Benedictine day faculty in London — Lord Carlile described as ‘totally outdated and demonstrably unacceptable’. At St Benedict’s, in which appalling intercourse abuse have been exposed, Carlile said the agree with should be break up into two — a brand new one for the abbey, and one for the college, with lay human beings controlling the school trust to offer it complete independence. Downside, notwithstanding promising change, continues with the vintage arrangement. A letter circulated on sixteen July this 12 months stated the putting in of the brand new School Trust ‘has been agreed in precept’. But by hook or by crook, the alternate always seems to be just over the horizon. Admittedly, Ampleforth’s set-up is better, with lay trustees involved, however the Abbot still chairs the board of trustees, which may also give an explanation for the current difficulties.
What occurs subsequent? It’s viable that if the monks relinquish more manipulate and surrender to skilled Catholic specialists, both faculties will revive themselves and revel in what Cardinal Newman known as a ‘2nd spring’. Numbers may start to climb again, perhaps aided by using pupils from distant places. Many mother and father are very dependable — understandably so, because they see their youngsters doing well and they in my opinion just like the clergymen.
But a few might feel differently. An antique monk, I remember, once told me at a drinks celebration that he became relaxed approximately Downside remaining at some point. Sometimes it’s better for some thing to cease with integrity, he argued, than trade with the times too much.