For a century, children were sent to the exclusive Fort Augustus Abbey and its prep school for what their parents hoped would be a first-class Catholic education. Run by the devout monks of the Benedictine order, this fee-paying school was the jewel in the crown of Catholic education in Scotland.
Yet a six-month investigation into the Abbey and its monks has uncovered five decades of systematic physical and sexual abuse reportedly carried out by a series of sadistic and predatory paedophile monks. Men of God, supposedly.
When BBC journalists started investigating this story, Fort Augustus Abbey, in the Highlands, had been closed for 20 years; its prep school, Carlekemp, in East Lothian, for longer.
But there were whispers about the brutal practices carried out by some of the monks who had lived in the Abbey and taught in the school.
Given that nearly every Benedictine school in England had been involved in a child sex abuse scandal, one had to ask if the boys of Fort Augustus had just had a lucky escape, or if this foreboding old Abbey had closed with its dark secrets intact. The latter would soon emerge to be true.
Courageous men like David and Christopher Walls, brothers who lived through experiences that most readers might have believed were the stuff of nightmares, said that the Old Boys network of the school, who trumpeted the place as a wonderful, character-building boot camp, were in denial, and that the investigation should dig deeper. The omertà, or silence, often associated with abuse claims within the Catholic Church had to be broken, they said.
One by one, men opened up about the horrors of Fort Augustus, and it soon became clear that what was being uncovered was a suspected paedophile ring of monks who were patient, systematic and callous.
For some of these boys, life was torture: daily beatings; blood regularly drawn from the ferocity of birch on bare backside; children as young as seven pulled from their beds in the dead of night of night to be lined up and flogged.
Often, they never knew why. It would be years until they twigged.
“We were being groomed,” said David Walls, who attended Carlekemp in the late 1950s. His brother Christopher, a year younger, was savagely beaten most days for around three years by Father Aidan Duggan, one of the Abbey’s Australian monks, who have all now been exposed as paedophiles.
Suddenly, the beatings stopped.
“The relief was palpable,” said David. “You were just grateful. And that’s when the kissing and cuddling started. It wasn’t until later that it fell into place,” said Christopher. “That was what it was all about, all the beatings.”
Both boys were repeatedly molested by Duggan, who was one of the most prolific of the offenders we learnt about.
Donald MacLeod was raped by Duggan in 1962, when he was 14.
“I always sort of felt it was somehow my fault,” said Donald, who had been sent to the school from Australia.
He, like many of the abused boys tried to raise the alarm, but was told by the headmaster at the time to “stop telling lies” or he would go to hell.
The BBC investigation revealed allegations that headmasters at the school, all monks, had failed to alert police to serious child sex abuse allegations, claiming that they chose either to ignore them, or simply move the offender on.
The last surviving of those headmasters, Father Francis Davidson, stepped down last week from a prestigious role as religious superior of a Benedictine college within Oxford University, St Benet’s Hall, after a series of BBC allegations that he covered up child abuse. Last week, Fr Davidson said that he did “not recall them being reported to me during my time as headmaster of Fort Augustus Abbey School” and that he had “always co-operated fully with the police in their investigations and will continue to do so as they progress and further information is gathered”.
One of the monks, Father Chrysostom Alexander, is the only one accused of sex abuse who remains alive. He was tracked down to Sydney, where he had been working as a priest.
Aged 77, he might he might have taken opportunity to respond to the allegations. Instead, he threatened to call the police, drove his car into mine in a bid to escape questions and was anything but contrite.
He may not have answered any questions, but a dark past that he had been avoiding for 30 years had finally caught up with him.
He is now at the centre of police investigations in both Scotland and Australia.
I salute the men who came forward for our investigation and who were brave enough to speak about the so-called Men of God who have haunted their dreams. There are 10 monks accused of the abuse. Around 50 former pupils who were abused, half of those sexually, have now spoken out.
The victims of the abusive monks of Fort Augustus have decided they will no longer obey the omertà, and will not go quietly.
‘Sins of Our Fathers’ will be shown on BBC2 tomorrow night at 11.20pm