Church braced for wave of sex abuse allegations

 

Catholic Church leaders in England and Wales are reeling after a series of abuse revelations, writes MARK HENNESSY

FOR YEARS, the Catholic Church in England and Wales has prided itself that it has handled matters better than the Catholic Church in Ireland.

It has done so despite being faced with repeated court cases involving clerics and stonewalling in the face of questions. Now, however, it is facing trouble at every turn, beginning with the affair of a missing monk, Laurence Soper (80), who has incredibly been on the run for seven months since failing to turn up for police questioning.

Meanwhile, an examination of its child-safety guidelines in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset is under way following the jailing last week of one of the church’s own child-protection officers for having pornographic images of children.

Ealing Abbey features prominently in the church’s difficulties.

Described as London’s leading independent Catholic co-educational school, it has a proud academic record, with three-quarters of its pupils last year winning top A-Level grades.

In 2009, however, Fr David Pearce was jailed for eight years for abusing five students while a teacher. Another teacher, John Maestri, was imprisoned in 2003 after admitting three counts of indecently assaulting young boys between 1980 and 1984.

Now, Soper – once Ealing’s abbot – is a fugitive from justice after he left a monastery in Rome in March to travel to London to meet detectives who wanted to question him about allegations of misconduct at the school. He disappeared.

He had served in Ealing, first as a teacher from 1972 and later as its head until he moved to Rome a decade ago. There he served as treasurer of the International Benedictine Federation’s treasurer.

Nearly nine months on, a European arrest warrant is likely to be issued.

Condemning his predecessor’s flight “without reservation”, Abbot Martin Shipperlee said the monks had “heard nothing from him since and all efforts to contact him have been without success”.

A report into conduct at Ealing from top QC Lord Alex Carlile is to be shared with the monks and published next week, while a Vatican-ordered apostolic visitation has already reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome after visiting last month.

The inspection was to ensure that guidelines put in place in England and Wales in 2002, which were revised in 2007, had been “followed to the letter”, the Bishops Conference of England and Wales said last month.

“The Catholic Church in England and Wales is determined to ensure its robust safety procedures are followed and this visitation is consistent with that aim.

“Any person with an allegation of abuse is urged to report it to the statutory authorities,” the bishops said.

In 2008 Bishop Vincent Nichols, who is now the Archbishop of Westminster but was then chairman of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, said the church could be “proud” of the progress made in the previous six years.

However, the church’s confidence has been further eroded by the trial of Chris Jarvis, who ran the diocese of Plymouth’s child-abuse investigations for nine years until he was arrested for having more than 4,000 images of children being sexually abused on his computer.

Jarvis interviewed alleged victims, had full access to all confidential files on known cases and handled criminal records checks on those needing clearance to work with children throughout the Plymouth diocese.

So far, Bishop of Plymouth Christopher Budd says that a review shows that Jarvis handled all of cases in the last three years properly, but he has brought in the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to investigate further.

One of the cases that came before Jarvis was that of another Benedictine house, Buckfast Abbey, where two monks have been jailed – one for 10 years – for abuse committed against pupils in its now-closed preparatory school.

Sentencing him last week, Judge Paul Darlow said: “The people who confided in you of their own misery and abuse may well be horrified that the person they were speaking to was, in his personal life, downloading images of children being abused in the same way.”