'˜Omerta' code hides private school abuse in Scotland, says author

Former pupils of independent private schools will find it extremely difficult to come forward and give evidence to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI) because of the 'mafia omerta' of the Scottish establishment, it has been claimed.

Alex Renton, author of Stiff Upper Lip, submitted evidence to the inquiry including information given to him by former pupils of Fettes College. Picture: Caroline Irby

Edinburgh-based journalist and author Alex Renton, who submitted evidence to the inquiry including information given to him by former pupils of Fettes College in Edinburgh and Gordonstoun, said abused pupils, particularly at boarding schools, still felt bound by a code of “don’t snitch, don’t tell, don’t talk outside the class”.

Freedom of Information figures from Police Scotland obtained by The Scotsman reveal 116 recorded sexual crimes were reported within 29 leading boarding schools in Scotland between 2012 and 2017.

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A total of 98 people were charged with sexual assault at these establishments during the same period.

SCAI, which started in October 2015, is examining alleged abuse at establishments run by religious orders.

A future phase will include private boarding schools.

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Those under investigation are Fettes College, where former Prime Minister Tony Blair was educated, and Gordonstoun – Prince Charles’s old school. The former Keil School, Loretto School, Merchiston Castle School and Morrison’s Academy – when it was a boarding school – are also being investigated. Other schools may be added. Mr Renton, who alleges he was abused at Ashdown House Prep School in Sussex – the school attended by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and actor Damian Lewis – said many abused former boarding school pupils in Scotland contacted him after his ITV documentary, ‘Boarding Schools: The Secret Shame’ was broadcast earlier this year.

“There’s a perfect storm of factors preventing these people reporting abuse,” he said.

“There’s the shame, fear of not being believed, guilt, and add to that a system whose cultural life blood is ‘we’re separate, we’re different, we’re better than everyone else’. As a society, we’re toxified by that.

“The Scottish establishment is very largely drawn from schools like those. It is not like the masonry in the police force, but is still clearly running Edinburgh and Britain.

“It is run by cabals and networks which don’t need to be formally constituted and include social connections back to childhood. Many of these former pupils are in these professions and perhaps their children too, meaning they can be wary of getting involved in the inquiry.”

Mr Renton, author of ‘Stiff Upper Lip - Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class,’ added: “Edinburgh is unique in that it has such a high proportion of privately educated people. This has a huge social effect on the city.”

Fettes College has removed the portrait of one its former headmasters, Anthony Chenevix-Trench, ahead of the inquiry following allegations he would beat pupils for his own sexual gratification.

A Fettes College spokeswoman said: “Fettes College has fully cooperated with the SCAI, submitting rigorously researched documentation in July 2017 as requested.

“We believe responses to boarding schools’ submissions will not be made this calendar year, so it would be contrary to the aims of the SCAI for us to make any comment on allegations until that time. We continue to urge any past pupils who wish to report historical abuse to contact the SCAI/Police Scotland in the first instance.” Last month Andrew Keir – a retired physics teacher who taught at Gordonstoun from 1983 to 1994 – was found guilty of grooming three boys. Following the trial, the school apologised for not taking the boys’ concerns seriously at the time.

A spokeswoman for Gordonstoun School in Elgin, Moray, which contacted more than 3,000 former pupils asking them to report historical allegations after claims were made by former pupils, said: “It is distressing to think any former student may have been harmed here.

“In recent years we have written repeatedly to former students expressing our concern for any student affected, urging them to contact the school or the police, directing them to the SCAI or the National Confidential Forum and offering to help them in any way we can.

“Today, Gordonstoun has a rigorous approach to child protection. Our policies and procedures are robust, developed and approved by leading child protection experts.”

John Edward, director of the Scottish Council of Independent Schools, said: “Every school contacted by the SCAI is supporting it fully, co-operating with every request and following the word and spirit of the inquiry.

“Any former pupils with concerns or issues should raise them with the inquiry.”.”