The ‘Problem of Evil’ was one of the more difficult questions asked by the monks at Ampleforth college when I was a pupil there. How, we were asked, does one reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and ever-loving God with the reality of widespread evil in the world we inhabit?
What we students hadn’t realised while we were pondering this question was that the monastery had its own way of dealing with the problem of evil. When it came to monks and teachers exploiting the most vulnerable people in their care, the previous course of action at Ampleforth was to quietly ship these child abusers off to a distant parish.
In 2018, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) found that in the second half of the last century:
“‘The overriding concern in both Ampleforth (and its southern counterpart Downside) was to avoid contact with the local authority or the police at all costs, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged abuse or actual knowledge of its occurrence.’
The inquiry’s conclusions were devastating and last week it was announced by the Department for Education that Ampleforth would no longer be allowed to enrol new students, effectively forcing the school to begin closing down.
Despite the grim catalogue of failures recorded by the IICSA this is sad news. While the school manifestly failed to deal with some abhorrent individuals – individuals whose actions have in at least one case led to the suicide of their victim – Ampleforth has faced its past and implemented all the recommendations from the IICSA, including separating the school from the monastery. The school is unique and still worth saving.
As the discussion about the Problem of Evil suggests, Ampleforth wasn’t a place where you were spoon-fed Catholicism. Instead it existed around you, showcased by the monks who believed in an ideal so much they had given up their lives and taken the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Occasionally students were given the opportunity to live a day in the monastery, mainlining coffee as we got up every three hours to chant our way through the Liturgy of the Hours. Often we would be in the company of some of our teachers and housemasters who – clad in black, hooded and habited – became different beings entirely.
At lunch, we joined the monks as they sat in silence using sign language – a flat palm for bread, fingers running along the table for cheese – while Father Prior read Wild Swans to them. Images of the Cultural Revolution floated above a scene which had changed little from medieval times.
The ancient and modern were often seen together at Ampleforth. The Benedictine life is active as well as contemplative. Monks were required to do manual labour, which in Ampleforth’s case included manning the area’s local fire engine. A siren echoing across the school’s drizzly Yorkshire valley was the cue for a host of monks to hoik up their skirts and run up the steep hills to exchange their habits for 1950s fireman clothing.
The same eccentricity was on show in the occasional lectures we were given. One was by Father Martin, a talented artist who I remember movingly discussing his doubts about taking holy orders while his contemporaries were called up to fight in the second world war. He was also the world’s leading expert on the Turin Shroud. The school was also visited by one of the visionaries from Medjugorje in Bosnia, who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary on top of one of the nearby hills.
Again, you could take or leave how much of this you were prepared to believe. Like many of my contemporaries, my feelings shift and change, but I still feel hugely lucky that my own housemaster – among the many good men who are clearly shattered by the horrors the school chose to hide – has performed my wedding, my children’s baptisms and given the last rites to friends who have died.
These memories should and will always be tainted by the failures at Ampleforth and perhaps it is fitting that a school steeped in the ancient Rule of St Benedict should fall after an everlong medieval battle between the church and state.
But in closing the school the Department for Education is making a mistake, and currently seems unable to distinguish the individual criminals from the good and laudable men they hid among.
An independent report which spoke to parents with children currently at Ampleforth found that:
“‘Pastoral care remains an exceptional strength of the school… There is no concern about child safeguarding issues, with parents feeling this is entirely a historic matter, and that external parents’ criticisms on these grounds are annoyingly unfounded.’
Last week’s announcement of the impending closure of Ampleforth has taken a backseat to the culture wars and sackings at Eton. It is perhaps worth noting though, that in an era which has been defined by an increasingly Year Zero attitude to history and long-standing institutions, having an education built on the rules of a sixth century Italian monk may be no bad thing.