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Rector of one of largest C of E churches discloses his own abuse by John Smyth

by Cara Bentley

In a letter to the church family at St Helen's Bishopsgate in London, Rev William Taylor has disclosed that he was beaten by John Smyth, following accusations that he had taken part in a cover up.

John Smyth was an Anglican evangelical who was chairman of the Iwerne Trust which ran Iwerne camps (Christian holidays for private school pupils) between 1974-81 and a trustee of Scripture Union from 1971 to 1979. 

Smyth abused 22 children and young people but was never imprisoned as he moved to Zimbabwe in 1984 and died in South Africa in 2018, at which point a police investigation was dropped.

No report of Smyth's abuse was made until 2017, over 30 years after the first report into concerns about him within the Iwerne Trust.

The Archbishop of Canterbury recently met with some survivors and apologised, saying "it is clear a number of Christians, clergy and lay, were made aware of the abuse in the 1980s." Justin Welby said the National Safeguarding Team would be investigating every clergy person or others of whom they have been informed who knew and failed to disclose the abuse.

Rev William Taylor, the leader of one of the biggest conservative evangelical Church of England congregations in the country, has been accused of covering up the abuse of both John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher, the former vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon. In a letter, the church wardens at St Helen's Bishopsgate explain what he knew and when regarding both abusers. 

Regarding John Smyth, Taylor told the church family this weekend that he knew in late 1981 that John Smyth engaged in violent beating of undergraduate students, because he himself was one of those beaten by John Smyth: "I became a Christian in December 1979, aged 18. I first remember meeting John Smyth in July 1981, as a young Christian aged 20. I was deceived by John Smyth and first beaten in Smyth’s shed in late August 1981. I recall being beaten twice more, the last in early December 1981. After that, I never went again. On 12 February 1982, I reported the beatings to the minister of the church I was attending at the time.

"My heart goes out to all those abused by Smyth in this country and in Africa. In the last few years, I have become aware that others suffered far worse experiences than me and have endured long lasting effects. I am grateful that Smyth’s abuse is being thoroughly investigated and I have participated willingly in the Church of England review undertaken by Keith Makin.

"Like many abused by John Smyth I have always wanted to keep his abuse of me private, though not secret. Until very recently, none of those abused by Smyth have sought to contact me, nor I them (with one exception), to discuss what happened 40 years ago. It is my hope that, having been forced to make my personal experience public, none of those abused by Smyth will have to face the same treatment I have faced online, which has had a significant effect on me and my family. I thank God for those who counselled and cared for me in 1982, and that God has blessed me with a loving family, close friends, and thirty years of pastoral ministry immersed in God’s living and active word."

The church wardens add that: "William, like all abused, should be entitled to privacy and anonymity if that is their wish. Becoming a clergyman does not change that basic right. Yet social media, which can be used for good, appears sadly to have been used to pressure William into a public disclosure of his intensely personal experience, including by some who had clearly come to know that he had been abused by John Smyth. 

"40 years on, William’s right to privacy in relation to his own abuse has been, in effect, stolen. It saddens us that some on online blogs, social media and Twitter should have regarded it as a comfort to other victims for William to be pressured into a public disclosure. 

"It is no comfort to William, his wife, his children or his wider family to have been treated in this way. Indeed, it concerns us that what has been done to William will be detrimental to victims of other abuse who may fear receiving similar treatment."

Regarding when Taylor knew about Fletcher's abuse, the church wardens report that: "Edward Connor Solicitors concluded that 'William Taylor did not have knowledge of Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse, prior to 5 February 2019.' This confirmed that William told the truth when he has said that he first learned of Fletcher’s abuse in early February 2019."

The letter goes on to say: "Since William found out about Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse in February 2019, from what we have seen, we know that William acted both to prevent Jonathan Fletcher engaging in ministry, in order to prevent further abuse or harm to victims, and to help victims come forward to receive help. It is evident to us that this has been William’s priority and he has consistently acted with the survivors’ interests at heart."

Following a 'healthcheck' conducted by a lawyer into the church's culture, the church wardens also describe how they plan to apply the recommendations of the 31:8 report, which looked into how Fletcher's abuse remained secret and how churches can change to stop that happening elsewhere. 

The church will therefore be working with Christian Safeguarding Services to help the church make any improvements to safeguarding and more than 1,000 small group leaders will be included in an external review into leadership and culture. 

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