Scandal Shutters English Abbey

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by James Baresel  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  September 22, 2020   

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In a disappointing but unsurprising development, the Benedictine monks of England's Downside Abbey have decided to close their monastery.

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Prime Minister Theresa May

The background to this move follows the now-familiar pattern: By 2015 the number of monks had dwindled to fewer than 20, leading the abbey to close five of the parishes it owned and staffed in nearby villages. Convictions of two monks who had taught at the abbey school — both for sexual misdeeds involving students and one for possessing child pornography — had already taken place in 2004 and 2012.

Decline spiraled into collapse when, in 2017, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse created by then-Prime Minister Theresa May began an investigation into sexual abuse at the schools run by Downside and by Ampleforth Abbey.

Both of the former are elite "public schools" (so called because, as boarding schools, they are open to the entire public rather than restricted to local residents). Both of the latter are part of the English Benedictine congregation, one of several subdivisions within the Benedictine Order.

Though founded in and largely associated with the country that gives it its name, the congregation is not inclusive of all the order's English monasteries, while including a few from the Americas and Africa. Its characteristic feature is a combination of a semi-contemplative life with education.

Ampleforth's school has attained such high prestige as to be known as the "Catholic Eton," but it is the history of Downside Abbey that is truly illustrious. Its founder was St. John Roberts, a convert who fled England during the persecution of the Church under Elizabeth Tudor, became a Benedictine, established his order's first monastery for English exiles (in Douai) and later died a martyr's death.


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By the time armies of the French Revolution gained control of the region surrounding the Douai monastery, Catholicism had been decriminalized in England, and so, following a year of imprisonment, the monks (still exiles born in the British Isles) returned to their homeland and re-established themselves at Downside.

Within a few decades of that refounding, the Roman Catholic Relief Act lifted the two remaining restrictions under which English Catholics had still suffered (a requirement that the practice of Catholicism remain behind closed doors and the exclusion of Catholics from voting and holding office).

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Dom Hubert van Zeller

Downside, as the senior community within the English Benedictine congregation, took its place as an important influence within 19th-century England's Catholic revival. Its school rose steadily to the top, the Benedictines eventually overtook even the then-rigorous Jesuits as their country's true masters of Catholic education. Its architecture was at the forefront of the neo-Gothic movement and has since been declared a Grade I building by England's National Heritage Trust.

Such centrality to English Catholic life continued well into the 20th century. One of its monks, Dom Hubert van Zeller, ranked among the more popular spiritual writers of mid-20th-century England and was a friend of Msgr. Ronald Knox (for whom he also served as confessor) and Evelyn Waugh (who frequently made retreats at the monastery and sent one of his sons to its school).

Yet even while some who had lived through Downside's great days remained alive (van Zeller, for example, dying only in 1984 after 60 years as a monk), the rot that was to be revealed in the report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse had already crept in.

Handfuls of monks working at the schools run by the two abbeys had sexually abused students.

That report's findings were predictable. Handfuls of monks working at the schools run by the two abbeys had sexually abused students. Instead of expelling the offenders (or at least ordering them into strict cloister), abbots of both monasteries generally required them to undergo psychological counseling and then reassigned them.

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Often this meant parish work. Sometimes it meant residence in or near an abbey without active duties that would involve minors but in locations that gave easy access to them. In one particularly appalling case, an abbot of Downside (named, like its founder, John Roberts) reassigned an offending priest, Fr. Nicholas White, to other duties at the abbey school — working with more senior boys. The result was that the student who had reported the abuse was again entrusted to White's "care" a little over a year later.

The student who had reported the abuse was again entrusted to White's 'care' a little over a year later.

The fallout from the report was swift. Downside Abbey and its school were separated into distinct legal entities, a costly business that required the sale of several pieces of Renaissance artwork. In 2019 the monastery's members (reduced to fewer than 10 monks after once numbering around 50) tried to prop up its existence by turning it into a "community center" for the local town, one that would "connect with everybody, no matter if they are religious or not" — efforts particularly focused on "the older generations ... who may not be able to use public transportation easily to get out of the area."  

With such an insipid approach, it is no wonder the remaining (and largely aging) monks soon realized that continuing on their current path was unsustainable. One can only hope they turn the building over to one of the Benedictine communities that maintain strict monastic discipline and Latin liturgy — and which attract so many applicants that they begin to run out of space.

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