Crucial test for Benedictine monks’ new leader as order faces sex abuse inquiry

Radio show regular Christopher Jamison takes over as abbot president at a time when the Catholic order is under intense scrutiny

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Benedictine monk Downside Abbey




A Benedictine monk at Downside Abbey near Bath.
Photograph: Alamy

Crucial test for Benedictine monks’ new leader as order faces sex abuse inquiry

Radio show regular Christopher Jamison takes over as abbot president at a time when the Catholic order is under intense scrutiny

He has been an abbot, an author, a TV star and a radio breakfast show regular and has been described as the country’s most influential Benedictine monk since Cardinal Basil Hume. Now Christopher Jamison is to attempt his most important role: saviour of the reputation of his monastic order.

At the start of August the monks of the English Benedictine Congregation – an association of 13 Roman Catholic communities of monks and nuns – elected Jamison as their leader. His installation as abbot president came just days after Professor Alexis Jay confirmed that the public inquiry she is chairing into child sexual abuse in England and Wales would focus its hearings during October and November on scandals at Benedictine schools and monasteries. The choice of Jamison was almost certainly no coincidence.

The Benedictines have been mired in controversy for 20 years following a series of revelations about sex abuse scandals at their prestigious private schools, Ampleforth, Downside, Worth and St Benedict’s, Ealing, west London. And with both the independent inquiry into child sex abuse, led by Jay, and a separate crown court trial of a Benedictine abbot on child sex abuse charges taking place this autumn, the order and its educational establishments will be under severe scrutiny.

Listeners to Chris Evans’s Radio 2 breakfast show, used to Jamison’s spiritual musings in its Pause for Thought slot, may be surprised to learn that he is taking on the difficult task of leading the order. Jamison is most at ease in front of a microphone and a camera. He has a knack of making Catholicism clear to a secular audience.

But that audience may become more hostile on hearing reports of evidence given to the Jay inquiry. The inquiry has also put on hold its hearings into St Benedict’s School, and its former abbot Laurence Soper is due to face trial in the autumn, charged with a series of offences against children.

The Benedictine order was one of the biggest in Britain before the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII from 1536 onwards. After they returned to England in the 19th century and the English Benedictine Congregation was refounded, the monks’ focus turned to parish work and founding schools. The English Benedictines have had a history since then of educating the children of England’s most influential and wealthiest Catholic families, as well as a reputation for being rather patrician in their own right – something that appears to have rubbed off on many of the order’s pupils.

Among those educated at Benedictine schools in Britain are the chancellor of Oxford University, Lord (Chris) Patten, the Downton Abbey writer Lord (Julian) Fellowes, the broadcaster Edward Stourton, the novelist Peter Ackroyd and the actors Rupert Everett and James Norton.

Stourton, reflecting on his education at Ampleforth, said: “I came away – and I think many of my contemporaries would share this feeling – with a strong consciousness of the Order of St Benedict’s past and its roots in imperial Rome, a very Benedictine sense of what it means to live in a community, and an awareness of being part of a worldwide institution that, while being deeply English in the way we experienced it, predated nation states. I think that last gift made it easier to understand the universality of the Catholic church.”

<!–[if IE 9]><![endif]–>Christopher Jamison


Christopher Jamison in BBC2’s The Monastery. Photograph: Alamy

This illustrious history is unlikely to count for much during the coming inquiry. Richard Scorer, a specialist abuse lawyer at Slater and Gordon and the author of Betrayed: The English Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis, believes that the sometimes rarified social ambience surrounding the Benedictines has not been conducive to openness and transparency. “There is something elitist about these Benedictine organisations. I have noticed that often victims were not out of the top drawer socially. There is a massive culture of snobbery and a view sometimes that we have our own way of doing things, that investigations can be tiresome.”

Police investigations have uncovered abuse at Benedictine schools stretching back to the 1960s. Three Ampleforth monks and a lay teacher have been convicted of assault. At Downside, four monks have faced police inquiries and two others have been put on restricted ministry. A former headmaster of the junior school at Ealing was convicted of abuse and the senior school’s deputy head of possessing child abuse images; its former abbot, who also taught at the school, awaits trial. All three institutions have since carried out their own investigations and changed their governance to improve child protection and safeguarding.

But Scorer said that the Jay inquiry should recognise that abuse at Benedictine schools was not only in the past. “The abuse inquiry goes back many years but it must look at the past decade with a laser eye,” he said. “I am aware of a very recent case where there was a breach of trust and the pupil says the problem was well known but not acted upon.”

Jamison will also need to consider the plight of monks who have been accused of sex abuse and then cleared. At Ampleforth the current abbot, Cuthbert Madden, was investigated by police and exonerated but has still not returned to his monastery nearly a year later as he awaits approvals from church safeguarding officials.

The new abbot president first became known to the public in 2005 as the star of BBC2’s highly popular series The Monastery, which took viewers inside Jamison’s abbey at Worth. Five young men of varying faiths and none were filmed as they shared the monastic life of work, prayer and recreation. The show led to a media career for Jamison, who went on to publish several books, make a follow-up TV series on silence, pop up as a frequent commentator on Catholic issues and later join Evans’s breakfast show.

He has not always been a popular figure among colleagues; his own monastery failed to re-elect him as its abbot after his first eight-year term – a highly unusual step, which some ascribed to Jamison exhausting his fellow monks with his desire for change. Austen Ivereigh, a former pupil at Worth who went on to found the media organisation Catholic Voices, said: “Christopher is an unusual monk because he is an off-the-charts extrovert while monks are often introverted people.

“He’s an extraordinarily dynamic leader – energetic, visionary and bold. He’s essentially a missionary monk who loves to connect the insights of his ancient monastic tradition to the contemporary world. He’s steeped in that tradition but happily navigates a high-profile world. I’d say he’s the most influential Benedictine monk since Cardinal Basil Hume. He’s not afraid of change that’s needed.”

For the English Benedictine Congregation, that is precisely what is required. In the past four decades, the order’s numbers have fallen sharply. In 1973 there were 530 monks and 136 nuns but this has dropped to roughly 280 monks and 35 nuns today. There are fewer than a dozen novices.

The church in England and Wales was one of the first Catholic congregations to improve protection of minors with new safeguarding policies; these will also be scrutinised by the Jay inquiry. Meanwhile, abuse crises have beset the Catholic church around the world. Pope Francis has set up a pontifical commission, and in a letter to bishops, leaked in January, he said child sexual abuse is a “sin that shames us” and there must be zero tolerance for offenders.

A LONG HISTORY

Circa 480 St Benedict believed to have been born in Norcia, Umbria, Italy.

529 Founds monastery at Monte Cassino, where he writes his rule of monastic life.

597 St Augustine of Canterbury and his monks establish first English monastery.

1536 Monasteries dissolved by Thomas Cromwell, acting for Henry VIII.

1802 Ampleforth founded, followed by Downside in 1814.

1976 Ampleforth abbot Basil Hume appointed archbishop of Westminster.

2004 Downside monk and teacher jailed for downloading pornographic images of children and indecent photos of pupils.

2005 Two monks jailed for abuse of schoolboys at Ampleforth. Police inquiries reveal abuse in school goes back at least 40 years.

2005 Abbot Christopher Jamison of Worth stars in BBC TV series The Monastery.

2017 Jamison appointed abbot president of the English Benedictine Congregation.

November 2017 Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse due to hear evidence regarding English Benedictine Congregation.

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