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Press: From the horrific to the downright insincere

17 August 2018


IT’S not all sex this week: The New York Times has an alarming story about the monks of Thailand, who are threatened by an obesity crisis. Although they are forbidden to eat after midday, nearly half of them are clinically obese, while only one third of the general population is. One in ten is diabetic. If the dharma don’t get you, then the doughnuts will.

But the real culprit, apparently, is not doughnuts but sugary energy drinks — and devotees who give shop-bought foods rather than home-made donations to the monks who come begging. The most imaginative counter measure was sartorial: “Monks told researchers involved in the project that they often didn’t realize they were putting on weight because of their loose fitting robes.

“Professor Jongjit and her team came up with a belt with knots to indicate where they thought a healthy waistline should be. They also provide monks with a measuring tape divided into four colours, to indicate various belly sizes.”


APART from that, the week was marked by two monstrous sex-abuse scandals involving boys and young men. The report by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse on the Benedictine schools at Ampleforth and Downside was truly horrifying. The Roman Catholic Church should be worried that it received rather subdued coverage, since that implies that it’s not news any more that elite RC schools were hotbeds of child abuse.

To quote The Guardian’s coverage: “Ampleforth in North Yorkshire and Downside in Somerset ‘prioritised the monks and their own reputations over the protection of children . . . in order to avoid scandal. . . Appalling sexual abuse [was] inflicted over decades on children as young as seven at Ampleforth school and 11 at Downside school.’

“‘The inquiry heard how boys were made to strip naked and were beaten. Some were forced to give and receive oral sex, both privately and in front of other pupils. Alleged abuse included digital penetration of the anus and children being compelled to perform sex acts on each other.

“‘Physical abuse had sadistic and sexual overtones, said the report, with one survivor describing his abuser at Ampleforth as ‘an out-and-out sadist’.

“‘Many perpetrators did not hide their sexual interests from the children. . . The blatant openness of these activities demonstrates there was a culture of acceptance of abusive behaviour,’ the report said.”

One former headmaster of Downside “made several trips with a wheelbarrow with files to the edge of the estate and made a bonfire of them”.

This reads as a striking example of practical ecumenism when considered alongside the statement by the Titus Trust on the death of John Smyth. The former chairman of the Iwerne Trust (now part of the Titus Trust) died at the weekend, having been accused of administering brutal beatings in his garden shed to boys whom he had befriended at camps run by the Trust in the 1970s.

“It is deeply regrettable that John Smyth’s death has robbed his victims of the opportunity to see justice done. Since 2014, when the board of the Titus Trust was informed of the allegations, we have done all we can to ensure the matter is properly investigated by the relevant authorities. We sympathise deeply with Smyth’s victims and continue to pray that they find healing and freedom from the harm that was so unjustly inflicted on them. Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the news of John Smyth’s death.”

Even apart from the use of “thoughts and prayers” — which is an infallible marker of insincerity — this is a document that exemplifies the reasons that no decent person trusts a certain type of public-school Evangelical. The crucial phrase is “the board of the Titus Trust”. This may be true in the world of appearances, since the board would have done anything in its power to avoid formally knowing about the allegations. At the same time, the animating spirit of the trust, the Revd David Fletcher, knew all about them, since he was among the recipients of the Revd Mark Ruston’s original report on Smyth’s depredations.

To quote the furious statement put out on behalf of the Iwerne survivors by Andrew Graystone: “[Mr Fletcher] and numerous leaders of his movement have been fully aware of Smyth’s abuse for 36 years. Revd Fletcher commissioned a comprehensive report of Smyth’s abuses in the UK in March 1982. From 1993 he was in possession of a further report of Smyth’s abuse in Zimbabwe. These reports, which were stored in the loft of the Chair of the Titus Trust Giles Rawlinson, were not made available to any secular authorities until 2017, when they were requisitioned by Hampshire Police under warrant.”

One of the more remarkable facts about these two cases was that all the organisations involved self-consciously targeted the elite. The humiliations and the pain involved were part of the vocational training of future leaders. In many cases, they far exceeded the treatment that less ambitious members of the middle class would tolerate. In most, they had been endured by the fathers who paid to send their children there.

What was really going on, I think, was something close to the initiation rites of some hunter-gatherer tribes, where young men are tortured and mutilated to mark them out as warriors. The hideous doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement was useful as a justification for this, but the real question is why the perpetrators wanted to use theology to justify their crimes.

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