A Roman Catholic priest who sexually abused ten boys while he was headteacher of a notorious £15,000-a-year west London private school is facing jail today.
Father Laurence Soper, 74, was in charge of St Benedict’s School and an abbot at Ealing Abbey when he groped and molested youngsters over the course of a decade in the 1970s and 1980s.
He had put himself in charge of discipline at the school, caning his victims for a thrill, keeping a cat-o-nine tails on his desk, and subjecting the boys to “sadistic” punishments for minor infringements, the Old Bailey heard.
Claims of Soper’s abuse began to emerged after he resigned as an abbot and went to live at the Benectine headquarters at Collegio Sant’Anselmo in Rome in 2000. He was quizzed repeatedly by the police but it was initially thought there was “insufficient evidence” to prosecute Soper.
However, he skipped bail in 2011 when facing further questions, going on the run to Kosovo with £182,000 withdrawn from his Vatican bank account. The runaway monk was extradited back to the UK last year and finally brought to justice today as a jury found him guilty of a catalogue of child sex crimes.
The school, which counts former European Commissioner Lord Patten of Barnes, entertainer Julian Clary, and Hollywood film star Andy Serkis among its alumni, has been dogged by scandal since stories of sexual abuse of boys first emerged.
Father David Pearce, the former head of the junior school, was jailed for eight years in 2009 for the abuse of five boys across 36 years, sparking an inquiry led by Lord Carlile which led to the Abbey being stripped of control over the school.
The Right Reverend Dom Martin Shipperlee admitted Father Pearce had been allowed back to the school despite a 2006 High Court award of damages to one of his victims, while headteacher Christopher Cleugh admitted there was a “terrible legacy” of abuse at the school.
In May last year, the school deputy head Peter Allott was jailed for 33 months after admitting he was addicted to child pornography, keeping some on a hard drive in his office, and was spending up to £600-a-week on chem-sex drug parties while looking at indecent pictures and videos.
St Benedict’s was accused during the Old Bailey trial of a “serial cover-up” of Soper’s abuse, between 1972 and 1983.
The court heard one of his victims received a £135,000 out of court settlement in 2010 and another received £5,900.
Soper was described by his victims as a “perverted and sadistic” disciplinarian who coaxed the boys into pulling down their trousers in exchange for softer strikes with the cane.
Prosecutor Gillian Etherton QC said the boys had been left feeling “dirty and ashamed”, and only one of the victims felt able to tell his parents what had happened.
“A priest or a monk is a person to look up to and hold in deep respect, not someone to challenge or confront”, she said. “A young boy's word against that of a priest - you may think it's little wonder that most of the complainants at the time said nothing.”
Soper was allowed to continue working as general treasurer of the International Benedictine Confederation despite sex abuse claims against him, and then able to withdraw money from his Vatican bank account to go on the run.
He denied all the charges against him but was today found guilty by a majority of 10-2 of two counts of buggery, one count of indecency with a child, and 16 counts of indecent assault on boys.
Judge Anthony Bate remanded Soper in custody until a sentencing hearing on December 19.
Between 2003 and 2009 teacher John Maestri, 78, of Chatham in Kent, admitted five indecent assaults against children at St Benedict's in the 1970s and 80s and was jailed.
In 2010, John Skelton was convicted of indecent assaults against two complainants said to have occurred in 1983 at St Benedict's.
Lord Carlile QC, who represented St Benedict’s, released a statement on behalf of the school saying: "My client is deeply concerned for and distressed by the ordeals faced by the victims of Laurence Soper, who have lived with the pain of his activities for so long. The school apologises unreservedly for the serious wrongs of the past.
"The school regrets that Soper did not have the courage to plead guilty. The result has been that innocent victims, whom he abused when they were boys in the school, were compelled to give evidence. They were subjected to cross examination about matters in relation to which they were both helpless and innocent.
"The fact that these matters took place many years ago does not mitigate the pain and injustice endured by them."
The statement went on to say the school is now "a completely different institution" that is "completely reformed and different from the monastery based governance in place when Soper served as Abbot".
"The tough lessons of the past have been learned, and the errors and crimes of the past are in the daily consciousness and conscience of the school management. Child safeguarding is the top priority, alongside the highest level of teaching and the provision of an excellent learning experience.
"St Benedict’s can and will never forget Soper’s crimes. Nevertheless they are proud of the school as it now is, and as confident as ever they can be that everything is being done to ensure that such events cannot recur."
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