It has been widely reported this week that one Leslie Carter, a former school chaplain, has pleaded guilty to a number of offences of indecency with boys dating back to 1957. He will be sentenced on 19 October and the judge at Harrow Crown Court warned him to expect a custodial sentence. It’s a case that has given rise to quite a bit of media interest since it’s one of the oldest abuse cases that has been successfully prosecuted.
I have been following the case with interest as I was a pupil at Quainton Hall School, the North London prep school where Carter taught, during the time he was there.
My clearest memory of that time is that everybody knew that Carter was unsafe around boys – the parents knew it and the boys certainly did. It’s absolutely inconceivable that what would now be called the Senior Management Team didn’t know what was going on. Indeed, Carter landed the post at the school after he had had to leave South Africa after incidents with boys there – the school at that stage was entirely in private hands, run by an elderly clergyman who was portrayed as something close to a saint while ruling with unchallenged and arbitrary authority – and who knows what transpired when Carter was given that job. Those who rail today about the bureaucracy of CRB checks and the like (not that they would have picked up Carter’s offences) might do well to reflect on the amateurism on display here. But what does seem clear is that Carter was only able to carry out his activities because the school – at every level – was willing to look the other way.
Moreover, what one remembers from the time was how Carter’s activities permeated the school. I wouldn’t necessary call it an atmosphere of fear, or even – to use the sort of language that tabloids deploy – of evil; but there was a perpetual underlying unease around Carter, an environment of edginess and caution and perpetual wariness. This was a school, affiliated with the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, whose ethos was one of a hot sweet Anglo-Catholicism in which the office of priest carried an authority and power that is difficult, forty years on in a secular environment, to describe – except to say that it was wielded in full in a way that did nothing to reduce the unease. Carter held absolute authority in a school chapel in which a Caucasian wounded Christ glared down at us from a crucifix, and in which a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian Virgin Mary, sexless but with eyes full of pain at the sin of the boys she surveyed, stared out from an alcove. Against this background Carter told us that the Jews had suffered their legitimate punishment over the centuries for crucifying Christ. Original sin and the fundamental unworthiness of boys was dunned into us by a man who routinely took his favourites aside and interfered with them.
Looking at the School website, I see nothing but business as usual – a Prep School seeking to set off all the triggers that such schools do to lure parents through the door. It would get Michael Gove purring with pleasure. The Christian ethos is adjusted to reflect the much greater ethnic diversity of the school – boys from Hindu and Muslim background as well as the many Jewish boys I recall from my time there. I am sure that the school as it is now would have all the right processes in place to stop anything like this happening in future. But private schools are masters of spin – never apologise, never explain. No expression of regret – why should there be? The masters and governors of that time are retired or dead, the boys middle-aged with probably a sprinkling of grandparents among them.
I have thought quite a lot about apology. I’ve in the past been a bit sceptical about closure and apologies – I’ve been inclined to think that it can be a false gesture. But I feel in this case that the school should be prepared to apologise, and, yes, closure is needed. In many ways my contempt is far greater for the two headmasters of the time, the staff and the governors who, faced with this disgrace, retreated into silence and inaction, than for Carter himself. Carter is what he is and should never have been allowed to enjoy the position he did; the headteachers and governors, in my view, put boys in his way through the moral delinquencies of rank-closing and selective ignorance and they bear their share of responsibility, especially if – as I suspect (I have of course no way of knowing) – deals were done within the Anglo-Catholic community to find Carter a safe berth. Perhaps that’s unfair – and I appreciate I’d probably feel diffrerently had I been one of the victims who had lived for decades with the trauma and shame of what this man did.
But it seems to me that a full apology by the school’s Governors is needed, and now. It remains to be seen whether an institution which, in the affair of Carter, appeared at the time to use piety to hide their moral compromises, has the courage to respond now.