Fort Augustus Abbey in the Highlands. Photo: Alamy
Police are investigating allegations of abuse at a Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, following complaints of a brutal regime in which boys were physically beaten, psychologically tortured and sexually assaulted. The school closed in 1993.
Officers from Police Scotland will travel to Newcastle tomorrow to interview Andrew Lavery, 41, who for two years in the 1980s attended the fee-paying Fort Augustus Abbey, which was run by Benedictine monks. “It was systematic, brutal, awful torture,” says Lavery, who says he was beaten, sexually assaulted and isolated in a locked room for days on end under “special measures”. He added: “The psychological torture was the most damaging. In the end I wanted to kill myself.”
Lavery claims he was beaten unconscious by a monk and lay master while pupils watched, then left at the playing fields to crawl back to school. He also says he experienced “greying”, which involved other pupils pinning the victim’s legs apart while his testicles were hit with a hockey stick. A monk watched without intervening. “I have had pain in my left testicle all my life,” he said.
Lavery also accuses Monk A, now a cleric in England, of physically beating and sexually assaulting him. He will tell police that when he broke his leg Monk A took advantage of his vulnerability and tried to grab his testicles. “I told him to leave me when I went to the toilet, but he was standing over me. He said, ‘No, you need a hand.’ I heard all his heavy breathing behind me. It was the wrong sort of breathing to hear in your life. He was fumbling and I was screaming at him to get off.”
Monk A is also accused of selling alcohol to underage pupils. When contacted by the Observer, he admitted giving them beer, but said: “I never beat people up and there was certainly never any sexual stuff. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
There has been heated debate on the school’s old boys website about abuse, with some denying it took place. Des Austin, a former pupil who privately investigated abuse at the school, posted extracts from 13 separate emails he received from old boys claiming physical and sexual assault from 1954-91. “The thing that got to me,” one wrote, “was the sexual abuse … and the fact that no one would believe me. My mother said, ‘priests never do such things’.”
Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned as Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh in February after allegations of sexual misconduct, was a visitor to the school and guest of honour at last year’s old boys’ dinner. Jimmy Savile, who owned a house in the Highlands, was also an occasional guest and Lavery remembers his Rolls-Royce being parked outside the monastery. Lavery was in a senior position as an addictions nurse until last year when he suffered a traumatic physical injury. While recovering, he suffered flashbacks, recovered memories and night terrors. He no longer works. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and assessed as requiring psychotherapy and specialist abuse counselling.
Another former pupil, Douglas Hiddleston, from Fortrose, remembers Lavery being treated “viciously” by pupils and staff. One of the few Protestants in the school, Hiddleston says he was also targeted. “Monk A grabbed me by the throat, pinned me up against the wall and called me a Proddy bastard,” he said.
Another pupil, who asked to remain anonymous, said Monk A “was the epitome of nastiness”. The man, who says he was once nearly drowned by fellow pupils while staff watched, also alleges that another monk was guilty of sexually predatory behaviour and tried to “groom” him. “Seediness pervaded the school,” he said.
The culture was similar for an earlier generation, according to some at the school in the 1960s. “I came close to suicide,” said Sean O’Donovan, who says he was bruised for five weeks after a birching. “I just couldn’t see an end to it.I tried using a rope, but it was too thin. It was very painful and, since I was trying to stop the pain, that made me think.”
William Wattie, who attended from 1959 to 1964 and became a headteacher, said: “Institutionalised bullying … I could never work out where the gentle carpenter of Nazareth fitted in.” He questioned “cuddling” by monks at the school’s feeder primary at Carlekemp in North Berwick, which has also been linked to abuse allegations. The Catholic church in Australia accepted abuse had been perpetrated by Father Aidan Duggan, a former teacher at both Carlekemp and Fort Augustus. Duggan died in 2004.
Fort Augustus monastery, which belonged to the English Congregation of Benedictines, also closed in 1998. The current Abbot President, Father Richard Yeo of Downside Abbey, admits former pupils have contacted him regarding the school. “I have heard allegations of both physical and sexual abuse which have disturbed me. If anyone comes forward to speak to me about this, I will try to be there for them,” he said.