Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Archbishop of Westminster ‘dodged apology over sexual abuse’

A victim of sexual abuse by a jailed priest last night accused the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales of refusing to apologise for his suffering.

The man, who was abused as a pupil at St Benedict’s School in West London, wrote to the Archbishop of Westminster last October after the conviction of a paedophile priest, David Pearce.

The Times disclosed on Saturday that despite being a known threat to children, the priest was allowed to remain at Ealing Abbey, to which the school is attached.

The High Court had awarded damages against Pearce and the school to the abuse victim, but he continued to groom and assault young boys until he was arrested in January 2008.

Pearce, 68, was one of four priests or teachers based at the Benedictine abbey and school who have been subject to separate police investigations in the past five years.

The man, known as C in his legal action and whose identity is protected because he is a victim of sexual offences, said that he wrote to Archbishop Vincent Nichols because he wanted an apology from the Church that he could show to his family from whom he had become estranged.

In his reply the Archbishop said that he was “sorry to read of the harmful experiences that you have had” and commended the man on “taking the brave action of reporting the crimes inflicted on you”.

He said that he also supported remarks to the press by the head of the abbey that he “would like to apologise in every way I can”.

But his letter, sent from Archbishop’s House in Westminster, stopped short of apologising for repeated failures to stop Pearce abusing boys. Instead, it said: “I am sorry that you feel the Roman Catholic Church failed your family.”

C, now living overseas, said: “The letter served a purpose insofar as I wanted to have something to show to my mother and my grandmother. I wanted something that my mother could read and realise that I had been telling the truth.

“But it doesn’t amount to an apology — it says he is sorry I feel let down but it doesn’t admit that the Catholic Church let me down, it doesn’t say they knew about him and failed to do anything, it doesn’t say the abuse had been going on for years and years and everybody knew about it.”

C said that the experience of being abused had severely damaged his life and particularly his ability to build relationships or trust anyone. He had decided in 2004 to pursue Pearce and reported him to police.

Despite a detailed investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge the priest at that time.

Nevertheless, C pursued a civil claim and in 2006 was awarded £43,000 in damages. The Church allowed Pearce to return to Ealing Abbey, however, and despite restrictions being placed on his movements and activity, he was able to abuse again.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, who was the Archbishop of Westminster at the time, has admitted that he was aware of the Pearce case and of the decision to return him to the abbey.

Archbishop Nichols, who was chairman of the board of the Catholic Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults, denied any knowledge of the details of the case until he arrived at Westminster last year.

Three other figures connected to Ealing Abbey and its private school have also been investigated by police for child sex offences. At one point police had so many active cases involving the abbey that they considered, but later dismissed, the theory that there might be a paedophile ring.

John Maestri, a former teacher at St Benedict’s, has been convicted on three separate occasions of sex offences against pupils.

He has served a prison sentence and been placed on the sex offenders register indefinitely.

In 2007 Father Stanislaus Hobbs, a priest at the abbey who also taught at the school, was acquitted by a jury of indecently assaulting a pupil during confession. The priest strenuously denied the allegations.

Police interviewed another priest from the abbey over abuse allegations but no charges have been brought.

The website still lists Pearce, who is serving an eight-year jail term for offences committed over a 35-year period, as one of the clergy and says mail for him can be sent to the abbey.

An Ealing Abbey spokesman said: “There has been an enormous development in the last ten years in the understanding of the sexual abuse of children. There are now clear and updated policies, reporting arrangements and training for staff.”

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