Roman Catholic church stalls on £8m child abuse claims

For 30 years, boys at St William's Community Home, near York, suffered at the hands of the De La Salle Brothers

By: Tracy McVeigh/The Observer
November 15, 2009

Handed over to foster care when barely a few weeks old and then hauled through the care system's institutional layers, Graham Baverstock had few chances at a childhood. Now aged 51, confined to a wheelchair and reliant on local authority carers, benefit cheques and doctors, he is a damaged man who admits he is quick to anger and slow to trust. He has tried to kill himself twice and thoughts of suicide are never far from his mind.

There is one year of his life from which Baverstock cannot move on, when as a 14-year-old he was sent to the Catholic-run St William's Community Home for troubled boys in Market Weighton, near York. It was set up by a group of Catholic teachers called the De La Salle Brotherhood in 1960. Since 1992, when St William's was finally closed, close to 200 men have come forward and claimed to have been either physically or sexually abused or both. Now 142 are suing for compensation which could cost the Roman Catholic church in England £8m.

One man has been convicted over the hundreds of allegations. In 2004 the home's former head, Brother James Carragher, was jailed for 14 years for abusing children, all aged between 10 and 16. He was, said one of the detectives involved in the case, "the most evil of men" who had regularly raped the boys in his care. He had earlier served four years in jail for similar offences. Two of his De La Salle colleagues were acquitted and the cases against another three men were dropped before coming to trial.

But last week the legal wrangling over who was responsible for the failings that led to what is the biggest historical abuse claim against the Catholic church in England had looked to be finally resolved when Leeds crown court ruled that the Catholic diocese of Middlesbrough was liable for running the former children's home at the centre of the scandal. The diocese had claimed that the lay order ran it. Although the De La Salle Brothers were in senior positions, Judge Simon Hawkesworth found that they were not employed by the lay order and it was the diocese that had the power to appoint staff.

Dr Jim Whiston, Middlesbrough diocese company secretary, said the bishops and the trustees were very disappointed with the decision. But he dashed the temporary euphoria of Baverstock and the other 141 claimants when he added: "We understand our legal advisers are considering an appeal and we, therefore, intend to make no further comment at this time."

So the case looks set to drag on.

Some 2,000 children and 500 staff were at St William's over the 30-year period that has been the subject of two police investigations and several court cases. Not only the children but also some of the staff have claimed to be victims of what went on at the institution. A soon-to-be-published Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry may, sources suggest, demand disciplinary action against named officers involved in Operation Aldgate, the second Humberside police investigation that looked at whether the abuse at St William's was a systematic and organised paedophile ring.

One former headteacher, Ben Mackay, told the Observer in 2005 that the charges of child abuse brought against him, which were later dropped, had left him living in "fear and distress".

"They talked of the trauma on the part of these former pupils. They have no idea what it did to us, and I don't think they cared," he said at the time.

But for St William's boys such as Baverstock the news that the diocese was likely to appeal against the judgment was a "slap in the face, a disgrace".

"This is the most horrific scandal, the biggest, the worst, the scale of it is just beyond comprehension. There are others who evaded justice and I find that offensive. But I also find it deeply offensive that the bishops and the priests of the Catholic church are continuing to ask people to come into their churches and pray and respect them when no one in that institution can face up to the reality of what happened here, can turn round and say sorry. It's not about us getting money, it never was.

"We were sent into their care and they should have cared for us. Not raped and abused and beaten us, punched and kicked us and forced cleaning fluid down our throats. We lived in fear and in silence and someone needs to acknowledge that.

"The scale of this is just so big, I have never spoken to anyone I was at St William's with since the day I left, but I saw the scale myself, it was clear. I'd be very surprised if there are any false claimants, it's not a bandwagon you want to climb on, is it? We'll likely all be dead by the time the Catholic church is forced to take any kind of responsibility.

"I need to be believed and children like me were never believed. That's why I need the church to say sorry. It's not going to change anything, my life is destroyed, it'll stay destroyed. But at least I'll have been believed."

Brother Aidan Kilty, Provincial of the De La Salle Brothers, said: "It has always been our understanding that the De La Salle Brothers were, neither in law, nor in practice, the responsible management of St William's. This has now been confirmed by the judgment of the high court."

A spokesman for the lay order said everyone had been left devastated by what had happened at St William's. "It's affected everyone, it's a terrible thing to have hanging over the order." But a source close to the Catholic church said there was a desire to see the case settled once and for all, although there was concern that many of the men bringing the compensation claim may not be true victims but are "jumping on the bandwagon".

"This is such a historical case in all senses of the word, it is a source of frustration that it goes on. It's just driven by outside forces, the insurers; court cases are just a big machine that no one can stop."

David Greenwood, the solicitor co-ordinating the men's action, said four new cases of former pupils claiming to have been abused at St William's had come forward since the publicity over the crown court decision. "These are men, often with very troubled lives, who are looking for some kind of validation. Many will never have spoken about what happened to them. The good news about this case is that they are coming forward and that the police have moved on sufficiently with their practices that they handle these cases well and with expertise that was lacking just a decade ago.

"The scenarios and the patterns are so familiar now that it's immediately obvious someone is speaking the truth. The sad thing is that there are so many more out there; the enormity of the case means there are a large number of men whose lives have been blighted by what happened at St William's and we will never hear of them, many will be in prison, many are dead."

Michael, 47, is another St William's victim. He is extremely proud of having managed to stay out of trouble since leaving the home, a beaten and abused young boy, and he now cares for his seriously ill father. "I'm going to the funeral of one of the boys next week; choked on his own vomit. I gave him a lift from town just the other day, he was pretty broken, you can see it. Another lad I knew committed suicide a while back. A lot more are inside, lifers. It ruins you, an experience like that, especially when you're struggling already," he said.

"A lot of the boys have dropped out of this compensation case, but I'm going to try to stay with it, no matter how long the church tries to stretch it out through the courts. It's the only thing we have left now really, trying to hold them to account."


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