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UK News

Review into Christian leader John Smyth's abuse finds staff at Christian charity should have acted upon information

by Cara Bentley

A review into abuse by a Christian camp leader has found that some associated with the Christian charity Scripture Union knew about the behaviour and could have prevented further harm but that Scripture Union was largely seen as a separate organisation to the Iwerne Trust, which knew more and had more responsibility. 

John Smyth was an Anglican evangelical who was Chairman of the Iwerne Trust which ran Iwerne camps (Christian holidays for private school pupils, now the Titus Trust) between 1974-81 and a trustee of Scripture Union (mission organisation to children) 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 the abuse was made until 2017, over 30 years after the first report into concerns about him within the Iwerne Trust.

Scripture Union (SU), Winchester College and the Church of England have each commissioned an independent review, with SU's executive summary coming out this week and the rest expected this year. 

It concluded that while three SU staff knew about the abuse decades ago, they did not tell the wider SU staff straight away as they felt their employment by SU was more 'on paper' than in practise, with their wages being paid by the Iwerne Trust. 

The report says the Iwerne Trust was secretive and had a mistrust of SU and the two organisations were seen as separate. 

The report also references Jonathan Fletcher's running of a Iwerne Camp for a "select group of boys" which SU have no record of. 

The report says the abuse by Smyth was extreme and physical with "clear and continuous sexual framing". Victims consistently describe the requirement to be naked during the beatings and describe Smyth "kissing, stroking and fondling them after beatings in contrast to the brutality and trauma of the beating they had just experienced."

Smyth had connections with SU from 1969-79 and the report indicates that three SU employees or associates knew and challenged Smyth about his behaviour: Rev David Fletcher (SU employee 1967-1986 and Jonathan Fletcher's older brother), Rev Mark Ruston - Round Church, Cambridge (listed as an SU trustee 1977-1979) and Rev John Eddison (Chair of Iwerne Trust, formerly a SU employee 1942-1981). 

SU is not publishing the full report, written by Gill Camina, director of Universal Safeguarding Solutions Ltd, but is making that available to the Church of England to help their report. 

The report states: "Evidence confirms that the Iwerne leadership 'inner circle' did not share evidence and information about Smyth's abusive behaviour with SU's leadership and trustees until after decisions about the management of the allegations had been made. This information was shared with key individuals within the Iwerne circle of allegiance which included Rev David Fletcher and Rev Tim Sterry, both of whom were employed by SU as staff with responsibility for the VPS / Iwerne Camp work. It also included Rev John Eddison who had just retired as SU's Team Leader for VPS at the end of 1981."

The report says however that those who had seen the report, who were technically SU employees, "sought to minimise the severity and scale of the abuse."

"In the accounts of victims and their advocates, this has included turning a blind eye to or minimising the abuse, denying it, blaming victims by framing what happened to them as wholly consensual, failing to acknowledge any failings in protecting children, failing to share information or make reports to the police, or covering up allegations of assault and abuse."

Alan Martin, the then General Secretary of SU, and Derek Warner, a trustee, are evidenced to have challenged the Iwerne leadership about what was going on but did not inform the rest of the SU Trustees or demand to know more, which the report calls "a critical error in judgement."

 

Zimbabwe

The report also concludes that Smyth's sudden emigration to Zimbabwe in 1984 - where he went on to run Christian camps in independent schools - "cannot have gone unnoticed or unquestioned in legal, educational or Anglican circles." 

A lawyer in Zimbabwe later collated evidence after failed attempts to progress Smyth's prosecution for alleged abuse of boys in Christian camps that he had been running in Zimbabwe for nearly a decade. 

The report says of this: "It is clear therefore that the need to protect children and young people outside of a UK context was not considered a priority. There is firm evidence that John Smyth was encouraged to leave the UK by senior Iwerne staff and alumni. Revd. Fletcher confirmed that this suggested action was discussed extensively and, with the support of mature ex-campers, included in a letter written to Smyth by Revd. Eddison. Both Revd. Fletcher and Revd. Eddison were or had been employed by SU at the time it is known that Smyth's abuse was happening."

The report suggests that there should have been communication between different branches of the global SU movement to prevent further abuse from happening. 

Victims stated that they felt there was a level of "willful ignorance" demonstrated by the wider evangelical community. "Victim accounts and the volume of evidence provided by the Coltart report, suggests that it is implausible that no senior SU staff were aware of the concerns surrounding Smyth's continued abuse of boys in Africa," the report details. 

 

2014 onwards and Rev Tim Hastie-Smith

The report notes that SU frequently tried to get access to full reports and more information but that it should have broken ties with Iwerne Trust long ago.

In 2014, the Titus Trust informed SU of historical abuse disclosures relating to Smyth, with SU's then national director Rev Tim Hastie-Smith leading all communications "in terms of meetings and direct conversations" with Titus Trust in relation to this case.

The report says Rev Hastie-Smith knew the identities of the perpetrator and at least one victim from October 2014 but that there has been no evidence that he shared this information with other SU staff. 

The review says: "Rev Hastie-Smith's conflict of interest should also have been declared in 2014/2015…he had been involved with Iwerne camps for many years (before joining SU) and, therefore, knew many of the people involved in them at a personal level; he was aware of the identity of an anonymous alleged victim who has spoken publicly about the Smyth matter; a number of his peers at Cambridge University were victims and survivors, and he had been one of David Fletcher's curates at St Ebbes, Oxford. These matters were formally declared to the Trustees of SU in February 2017. However, the Reviewer has seen no evidence that they were declared in 2014/15 and they should have led to the communication with Titus Trust being led by SU's designated safeguarding lead rather than Revd. Hastie-Smith."

After that and the reviewer says the "collective initial SU response to the 2015 disclosures was positive and appropriate" and says concerns since then have been dealt with promptly. 

A referral was made to the police by SU in 2017. 

 

Status as power

There are several similarities between this report and the observations in the Jonathan Fletcher lessons learnt review published earlier this week. 

This reviewer also mentions a problem in the deference shown towards Christian authority figures with high social status, saying:

"The evangelical Anglican church leadership in England and Wales was, and continues to be, demonstrably dominated by wealthy, socially elite, highly educated white males. This is also reflected in the Iwerne leadership and clergy involved in the management of the Smyth concerns. The individuals who received full disclosure of Smyth's abuse have all been described by victims as having 'huge social polish' which made them very convincing, dominant and persuasive."

 

To read the executive summary in full, click here
 

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