I sat back to enjoy the train ride when I became aware that the future Abbot had his hand on my leg.
"Is that ok?" he said.
… then later he came into my cell for a less encumbered encounter…
Says Tom Wood
I feel like a double reject.
First rejection. The Prior, who had been so keen that I should try my vocation, now it seemed, could not get rid of me quickly enough and agreed wholeheartedly my acceptance that he would apply to Rome for my dispensation. All done and dusted in about 6 months!
Second rejection. Fast forward nearly 30 years and the refusal of the hierarchy to do anything about the Abbot and learning that his bullying and harassing continues is not just the second rejection but is the perpetuation of an open wound, a constant re-traumatising that makes me determined to do whatever I can to prevent other men, especially young men, from likewise having their lives ruined at the Abbot's hand!
Between the years of 1987 and 1989, I was known as Dom Thomas Wood OSB of St. Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, Hants, UK.
I was a novice at the same time as the Abbot. We were professed during the same ceremony. Here we are pictured after the event.
But let's go back a bit... how did it all begin for me....
Whilst praying before The Blessed Sacrament at the altar of repose on Holy Thursday in 1987, I suddenly felt a loosening of the fear that I had felt about seriously exploring a possible vocation to priesthood and / or religious life. I spoke of it with my parish priest who was supportive. I started writing letters to various orders but the response I had from St. Michaels Abbey, Farnborough, Hants, with an invitation to visit really captured my thoughts and so it was that I was due to visit at Pentecost but a heavy cold forced me to put back my plans by a week and my visit duly took place to include Trinity Sunday.
It's interesting to note, that had I visited at Pentecost as had been planned, I would never have met the future Abbot who would go on to have such a detrimental effect on my life and others.
I am thankful, in hindsight, that I was able to enjoy and experience the life of the abbey to a small extent before his arrival and I can only wish but that I had the maturity back then to have avoided this narcissist and his grooming techniques. My Trinity Sunday weekend was an experience of sheer bliss! My experience of Gregorian chant up till then was an old record of my father’s featuring Solemnes and our occasional visits to my father’s hometown of Bishop's Stortford and the then Redemptorist parish church of St. Joseph where he had been an alter server, man and boy, when they would have had Mass in Latin. (De Angelis)
Yes, I was truly bowled over by the beauty of the abbey in June, the beauty of the music and liturgy and a very pleasant conversation seated in front of the west door of the church on the Sunday afternoon with the mild mannered Dom David Higham, the then Prior. It was agreed that I would return in July and stay for a month. The Month I waited to return felt like an eternity.
My month started in dismal summer grey weather and the beauty of the abbey in glorious sunshine was brought into stark comparison with its absence. I met befriended a fellow would be postulant Stephen Guest and Dom Andrew, then sacristan took me to Winchester on a dies non and as well as marvelling at the cathedral we walked along the river to St. Cross alms house, which was very monastic in appearance including a lovely chapel. On the way back Dom Andrew remarked that postulants come and go, but they mainly go...I pondered on this and hoped I would persevere.
The end of my month was marked by the Feast of The Assumption and the glorious spectacle from my east facing cell window of the summer sun gradually climbing in the sky was to me like an icon of the virgin ascending to heaven itself. About this time The Prior had asked me how I felt about trying my vocation, to which I said that I wished to try and he replied in a way so kind and embracing, "We would like you to try too!" I returned home to spend another unending month sorting things out and disposing of my car.
Thursday the 17th of September, Feast of St. Hildegard. My parish priest collected me, suitcase in hand as I bid farewell to parents and brothers and the family home and our aged cat that had been our family pet for as long as I could remember. As far as I recall, Stephen started at the same time and being slightly older than I, took seniority. My cell was top floor of the red brick house, second window along from the "Solemnes" bit as viewed from the cloister garden, Stephen and later Matthew Newton, would occupy the first. As I understand, today, four rooms have become two, with "en suite!!!" 21st century style austerity!
I think the future Abbot started in the October initially my junior. This changed because the family cat that I mentioned earlier was dying. I asked if I might briefly return home to see him one last time, but this was rather curtly and dismissingly denied by Mario. It's important I feel to mention that I in no way attempted to return home, I stayed, but this was used as an excuse to clothe the future Abbot, ahead of me and so create him my senior, which he enjoyed and let me know with various quips which back then and until quite recently, I put down to his sense of humour, but actually they were nasty little knives in my self-esteem furthering my psychological dependence on him.
One afternoon, the three of us, the future Abbot, Stephen and myself were cleaning in the hall / choir room kitchen / bar area. Somehow the conversation had come around to romance / relationships and I happened to mention that I earlier had thought I might be gay, certainly it seemed as though the rest of my school class thought I was and I endured a particularly rough third year with taunts. It's my belief that this was a green light to the future Abbot because it appears in my recollection, that following that I was subject to a merciless attack on my piety, stories of someone he'd had a crush on, and the irreverent gay culture of a Passionist brother he had befriended whilst himself a Passionist.
Now I'm certainly willing to accept that monastic formation will involve the abrading of rough edges, but this was not the job of the senior novice, who would have had at least some check and balance had he remained junior and not had such a familiar relationship with the novice master Mario, even so,
… ridiculing my piety, filling my head with gay culture and not just that. He would be discourteous and judgmental about various other community members and I was gradually losing my shock and beginning to think he was the bees knees and that the sun shone through and out of him. He had me where he wanted me.
By this time I wasn't minded to talk to Mario, even if he would have done something and dear Dom David was too weak to act. I now feel rather bad, especially since learning of Dom David's passing, that I had repaid his initial kindness with disdain. It's true Dom David could be a bit pretentious and I was yearning for a little more variety in liturgy, tastes of which with breaths of fresh air were enjoyed when Fr Robert and Father Stephen were back in the house.
I thought the future Abbot was similarly minded so have been quite shocked to see him among the most traditional!! No, the baby was well and truly thrown out with the bathwater. I supported the community's (His?) decision to ask the men and boys choir to leave in the mid nineties, mainly because I still hadn't woken up fully to what he'd done to me, but also because I was not nourished on just polyphony and plainsong, but I'm sure variation would have been possible without completely dismissing the choir.
My father befriended the Madeley family from Horsham, Brian, the Dad and his two sons Sean and Tim, who had a priestly vocation and would go on to study at Wonersh at the same time as I was at Farnborough and so it happened that not long after the events I've just related Cuthbert and I went to visit Tim at Wonersh. Was it a coincidence that the biblical passage read before lunch, for which Cuthbert and I had changed into our habits, was the words of caution to "Beware those who dress in long robes and parade about making a great show for all to see"... yes... must have been a coincidence!!??
After a pleasant visit I sat back to enjoy the train ride from Guildford to Farnborough North when I became aware that the future Abbot had his hand on my leg. "Is that ok?" he said.
I think I probably murmured yes, or didn't answer...I really can't remember, he certainly didn't force himself, at least, not in a direct way, but I now see that all the earlier events, the licencing and revoking of said, all at his whim and all at the expense of my sanity and self esteem, this breaking me, this grooming! Of course, given the way I had been feeling only a week or two earlier, my restored resolve dissolved and I endured / enjoyed my first sexual experience firstly a grope on the train and then later he came into my cell for a less encumbered encounter.
For me, the genie was out of the bottle and over the course of the next year 88 - 89 on / off the affair perpetuated.
At one point I felt I wanted to leave, but he told me that I would be preyed upon by dirty old men and not knowing otherwise stayed with the one who had already preyed upon me.
I don't know why he didn't let me go at that time, did he think he could control me?
He was soon to find out, that he couldn't because once again I was going to find the emotional baggage unbearable.
The Prior suggested I took three months to think about things but I think we both knew I wasn't going back.
Who can say whether or not I would be sitting in the same place and dealing with the same issues today had I not encountered the future Abbot and having had the experience of a better formation?
And where is the future Abbot today? His "Stable" "Monks" "Austere" lifestyle includes jet setting the world, dining at Harvey Nics and in the CN Tower! Those of you who follow his facebook page can see for yourself!! Why we might ask, does he spend so much time away from the Abbey? Is it because being there forces him to confront his past and to consider the fact that whilst he has restored the church, he has ruined the abbey, crumbs we thought it was struggling back in the day with 12 or so monks, but now it has about 5? And what has happened to the surviving members from my time? Not one in the house. Why?
He should remove himself from office and lead a private life of prayer and penance in a foreign house having no public ministry, contact with minors, vulnerable adults or novices, that limited travel be supervised and that all these restrictions be monitored and verified. The Community to be dispersed and absorbed into other communities that may test, prove and perfect their vocation.
(Tom Wood was between the years of 1987 and 1989 known as Dom Thomas Wood OSB of St. Michael's Abbey, Farnborough, Hants, UK.)
Tom Wood: https://www.facebook.com/tgjwood