The Daily Telegraph has a lengthy article today by a former pupil of Downside about a return visit he had made to the school and his reflections on his own time there, on the abuse suffered by some of the other boys, and which sought to understand what had brought about the situation. He also visited the remaining members of the monastic community in their temporary home at Buckfast. The article is considered and reflective, and offers no easy answers as to how such a situation is to be processed by survivors, or by the wider community who failed to appreciate or understand what was happening alongside an otherwise conventional, and esteemed, public school and Benedictine monastery.
The article can be read at The boarding school living in the shadows of a sexual abuse scandal
I have only visited Downside once. That was, if I recall aright, in 1990 when I was, as an Anglican, on a Benedictine retreat led by Esther de Waal at Glastonbury. We had monks talking to us about the life of the Downside community and visited the abbey for an afternoon for a tour, tea and Vespers. I was deeply impressed by the beauty and scale of the monastic church, and its sense of prayerfulness. This was seemingly a place that stood in a tradition of fifteen centuries of spiritual discipline and creativity. Everything suggested tranquility and orderliness. We did not visit the school but I imagine that if we had a similar spirit would have prevailed. Downside appeared a citadel of a restored English Catholic life in the depths of rural Somerset. It remains in my mind as a very special visit.
Since then revelations of what some monks at Downside and other Benedictine houses were doing have not merely shaken the public perception of monastic houses and schools but have done irreparable harm to both monastic and school life. This is tragic and the result of human wickedness.
The author of the article shows how seeking to understand what happened offers no easy answers. That is perhaps similar to the reflections about abusive priests by Martin Mosebach from Rorate Caeli which I linked to the other day. The incomprehension most of us have as to what leads to such behaviour also renders us unable to fully understand how it can exist as known yet not known in religious individuals and communities.
As a historian I wonder as to how long such things have gone on in monastic houses, or indeed parishes. Whilst I can fully believe that recent decades have seen the emergence of lax discipline and a pursuit of a very wrong type of individualism I suspect that such evils may have been hiding in plain sight for much longer. Accusations of such behaviour can be detected amongst the hostile critics of monasticism in the sixteenth century, amongst the Lollards, and in the sometimes surprisingly candid comments of continental ecclesiastical writers of the thirteenth century. One does not have to have the obsessive seeking after scandal of a Coulton to sense that this is not a new problem.
It is a dispiriting idea to set against the undoubtedly great and positive part Benedictine life has contributed to the life and history of the Church and of Christendom. The fact that that achievement is in risk of being denigrated as a result is a further tragic legacy of whatever was going wrong behind the walls of the enclosure.