This one is being reported widely; from Channel 4 News:
Police have today launched an investigation into claims that teenage boys from Britain’s leading public schools were violently beaten, in what’s been described as a “sadomasochistic cult” run by a lawyer with links to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Operation Cubic, run by Hampshire Police, will examine allegations uncovered by Channel 4 News that John Smyth QC stripped and brutally lashed 22 young men he had groomed at the Christian youth camps he ran.
Archbishop Justin Welby, who worked at the camps managed by The Iwerne Trust , and was once a colleague of Mr Smyth, issued an “unreserved and unequivocal” apology on behalf of the Church of England, admitting it had “failed terribly”.
(For non-British readers: public schools here mean posh private schools) The alleged beatings – so severe that some alleged victims were forced to wear adult nappies due to bleeding – did not occur at the camps themselves. Instead, it is claimed that they took place in Smyth’s garden shed, after the boys had come under Smyth’s influence. Many of the alleged victims were originally associated with Winchester College, and one, allegedly pursued by Smyth to university, attempted suicide rather than submit to a beating for his 21st birthday.
Smyth (pronounced “John Smythe”) was famous as the “go-to barrister” for “clean up TV” campaigner Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers and Listeners Association, and he represented her in several campaigning legal actions, most famously against Gay News in 1977, for publishing a poem “about a homosexual centurion’s love for Christ at the Crucifixion” (the paper was convicted of the archaic offence of “blasphemous libel”), and against the National Theatre in 1980, for staging a play that featured a homosexual rape scene (although he fell ill before the trial and the case was unsuccessful). As “John J. Smyth QC” he also wrote letters to The Times arguing for controls on video recordings and other subjects (he is also referred to in some sources by his full name and title of John Jackson Smyth QC).
Smyth appears to have had a particular obsession with homosexuality – his website (since deleted, but available on the Internet Archive) includes booklets such as Why Choose Heterosexuality?, Homosexuality and Political Correctness: The Great Media Deception, and The Biblical Teaching on Homosexuality.
Unlike some other historical abuse claims, in this instance we have a very clear paper trail which shows that the Iwerne Trust compiled a report on Smyth in 1982, which was passed to the police by the Titus Trust in 2014 after it took over the Iwerne Trust’s work. Smyth did not challenge the report, but instead left the UK for Zimbabwe in 1984, where he worked for a mission group called Africa Enterprise for two years and then ran similar camps under the name of the Zambesi Trust from 1986. In 1997, he was charged with culpable homicide over the death of Guide Nyachuru, a boy who drowned at one of his camps in December 1992, and of having injured several other boys in April 1993 . However, the case collapsed due to legal irregularities, after which he relocated to South Africa. There, Smyth became Director of the Christian Lawyers’ Association of South Africa, in which capacity he opposed civil unions, and later became Honorary Director of the Justice Alliance of South Africa (which has also deleted its website).
The Iwerne Holidays were founded in the 1930s, and they have been instrumental in promoting evangelicalism within the Anglican Church. Here’s some background from From Controversy to Co-Existence: Evangelicals in the Church of England 1914-1980, by Randle Manwaring and published by the Cambridge University Press in 1985 (pp. 57-58):
For a long time there had been Scripture Union Camps but, as the work of its sister organisation, the C.S.S.M. [Children’s Special Service Mission], expanded, so the latter flowered into what were called Varsities and Public School Camps… These took many forms… but one the most far-sighted and far-reaching enterprises was led by the Rev. E. J. H. Nash, who, at the age of thirty-three, gave up his work as chaplain of Wrekin College (a Maryrs Memorial Trust School) to work full-time for C.S.S.M. and S.U. Immediately, he organised camps at Clayesmore School, Iwerne Minster, Dorset, which continue to this day, the mantle of Elijah having fallen on the Rev. David Fletcher. The keynotes of Iwerne were always very simple bible teaching and pastoral care through strongly developed friendships at all levels. Attendance was by invitation only and limited to boys at major public schools, at least boarding schools. The unofficial, sotto voce, slogan of the ‘Bash Camps’ (Bash being the very affectionate name given to E. J. H. Nash) was ‘key boys from key schools’ and, whilst this strategy of creating a patrician, elitist Christian society was criticised by many, the results were most remarkable…
Many influential figures in British Anglican evangelicalism were associated with the camps over the years, including John Stott and Bishop Michael Green.
Fletcher was in charge when the report on Smyth was compiled (he “declined to comment to Channel 4”); and Smyth’s alleged flagellomania gives an unfortunate new connotation to the name “Bash Camps”, even though it is claimed that the alleged abuse took place away from the camps themselves. An assessment from a 1969 work (The Evangelicals, by John King) has been included in Nash’s Wikipedia entry, and it provides some clue as to how the culture of the camps may have facilitated Smyth’s alleged predations in the decade that followed:
Controversy is eschewed by “Bash campers”; it is held to be noisy and undignified – and potentially damaging. As a result many issues which ought to be faced are quietly avoided. Any practical decisions that must be made are taken discreetly by the leadership and passed down the line. The loyalty of the rank and file is such that decisions are respected; any who question are liable to find themselves outside the pale… It does not give a place to the process of argument, consultation and independent thought which are essential to any genuine co-operation, inside the church or outside it.
There are two details from yesterday’s media report that may perhaps have been overlooked:
1. In 2012 the media moralist Anne Atkins published an article in the Daily Mail headlined “‘I haven’t handed over a sex offender to the police – because I was told in confidence’: A leading agony aunt makes an explosive confession”. The article was mainly about Atkins’s knowledge about sex abuse by a man she named as “Peter”, but near the end she wrote about another individual:
Years ago, when I was still a child, we had a family friend who was an eminent lawyer, with considerable influence in a well-known public school. He used to invite boys to his house for Bible study. And then encourage them to confess their sins. If they admitted masturbation, for instance, he would strip and beat them, in a shed where no other adults were allowed.
When word of this got out, the parents understandably wanted to protect their sons; the school wanted to protect its reputation.
Instead of facing trial, he was allowed to leave the country quietly . . . and continue the same practices abroad, where eventually he punished a boy so severely that he died. Again, I understand there was no trial.
Friends of ours recently went to stay with him and his family, still living respectably in another country. ‘How are they?’ I asked.
Speaking on Channel 4 News, Atkins has now confirmed that this part of her article pertained to Smyth – although her claim that the boy died due being “punished” rather than accidentally due to drowning has not been substantiated.
Channel 4 News specifies that according to the old report on Smyth “the abuse was violent but not sexual”, but extra details in the South Africa Mail & Guardian state that Smyth is alleged to kissed his victims’ backs and necks after beatings. He is also alleged to have had an enthusiasm for showering with boys while in Africa.
2. The 1982 report has not been published, but the Channel 4 News report includes a couple of screenshots. These show that a second person was also involved in administering beatings:
J and S saw this as a ‘ministry’ from God. But the ‘ministry’ of discipline in this sense, was secret, self-appointed and never approved by other Christian leaders (cf. Acts xiii.1-2). and of course unknown in lists of ministries (cf. Ephesians iv.ll, etc.)
The knowledge of other people’s sins, and ‘power’ over them through their humiliation, nakedness and beating, is exceedingly bad for the operators.
Note the plural “operators”; “J” is John Smyth – but who is “S”?
There are similarities here with the Anglican Bishop Peter Ball, who in 2015 was convicted of misconduct in a public office for similar practices involving “humiliation, nakedness and beating” in the 1980s and 1990s. It seems that the Anglo-Catholic Ball and the Evangelical Smyth might have a couple of things in common.
UPDATE 1 (3 February): Anne Atkins has now published an article in the Telegraph, titled “Inside the Sexual Apartheid of John Smyth’s Summer Camps”. Although the camps were for boys, it appears that in some cases their sisters could also attend as “helpers”, although “confined to the kitchen”:
I was discreetly steered away from volunteering for a helicopter trip advertised over breakfast; told off for stopping to chat to a young man I was introduced to destined for the same Oxford college; then for agreeing to play tennis with my brother (he was not); and finally for talking to some boys who lay down near us at the swimming pool. It was the last straw: it was politely suggested I should leave, as I didn’t fit in….My husband – not eligible because not public-school-educated, but with his clergy world heavily influenced by it – has boasted ever since that I am the only person to have been sent down from one of its camps.
UPDATE 2 (3 February): Channel 4 News has now broadcast a follow-up segment about Smyth’s activity in Zimbabwe and how the Titus Trust dealt with the matter when it took over the Iwerne Trust in 2014. Once again, there’s an interesting screenshot of a document, this time of some legal advice that has some background about how Smyth was dealt with at the time:
The trustees at the time did warn other organisations in the UK about the character of John Smyth in an attempt to ensure that he could not continue to work with young persons in same capacity. The Headmaster of Winchester College was immediately notified. The trustees subsequently ensured that the Lawyers Christian Fellowship was made aware so that he was prevented from speaking at one of their meetings and various other organisation were contacted. Preventative actions were therefore taken but there was not a full disclosure… At a later date the trustees responded to a request for information from Zimbabwe and ensured that church leaders warned their congregations about John Smyth.
UPDATE 3 (4 February): The Telegraph has published a follow-up article, which notes that the allegations appeared in a 1989 book by John Thorn, a former headmaster of Winchester College, titled The Road to Winchester. Here’s the quote:
I was told the extraordinary news that the neighbouring barrister had gained such personal control over a few of the senior boys in the group, and had kept it after they left the school, that he was claiming to direct their burgeoning relationship with girls and was, with their consent, punishing them physically when they confessed to him they had sinned.
The World of Conservative Evangelism was reft in twain. Absurd and baseless rumours were circulated that he was an unhinged tyrant, the embodiment of Satan. He must be banished. And – quietly but efficiently – he was.
He left the Winchester district and then the United Kingdom. He departed for Africa with his family and, by me, has not been heard of since.
This minimising spin immediately brings to mind the dismissive way that allegations against Peter Ball were dealt with in Eric Kemp’s memoir.
It does not appear that Smyth was named in the book (I haven’t been able to see the original), but according the Telegraph Smyth then circulated a confidential release to church leaders in Zimbabwe in which he admitted to an “aberration of judgment” due to a dependency on sleeping pills. Oddly, however, it seems that he never felt the need to make amends to those who had suffered at the receiving end of this “aberration”.
So – punishment dished out to boys and young men for having normal sexual feelings; but a feeble excuse for his own predatory sadism.
UPDATE 4 (5 February): BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme has a segment on the story. Anne Atkins criticized some reports that this is a “Church of England scandal” (it should be noted that the Iwerne camps were not official Anglican events), while Andrew Graystone, who advised the Titus Trust about the matter in 2014, suggested that while Smyth’s alleged activities were not a part of evangelicalism, they were a “corruption” of evangelicalism that may have drawn on ideas about the need to suffer for Christ just as Christ had suffered for humanity, and about the status of children as unformed adults. Graystone also said that he had become aware of a “second abuser” since the Channel 4 broadcast, and that he would be naming this person to police – presumably this is a reference to the person named as “S” in the 1982 report.
UPDATE 5 (5 February): The Telegraph has published a July 1993 letter that Smyth sent to the “parents of new campers” in which he explained his regime. He said that he wanted “a relaxed family atmosphere”, but that “with so many high-spirited boys we need some form of sanction. I never cane the boys, but I do whack them with a table tennis bat when necessary.” He also said that it was normal for leaders to shower with the boys and for campers to swim naked in the camp pool.
UPDATE 6 (5 February): The South Africa Times Live has reported that the chair of the Justice Alliance, Msizi Cele has said Smyth has been “asked to step down” and that “I don’t think it will be possible for [him] to come back”. A member of the board, Stephen van Rhyn, also confirmed that Smyth has no association with his Jubilee Community Church in Observatory‚ Cape Town. According to the South Africa Sunday Times, Smyth actually had a leadership position with Church-on-Main in Wynberg, Cape Town; the pastor, Andrew Thomson, has said that Smyth has “agreed to step down”.
UPDATE 7 (5 February): The Telegraph has some details on Smyth’s assistant named as “S” in the 1982 report – he was a teenage boy who was allegedly “forced” to join in the beatings, and although he may also now be reported to the police, “the boys he beat are said to regard him as a victim of Mr Smyth, rather than an accomplice”.
The same paper also has an account by the man who had attempted suicide, published anonymously. The author writes that he met Smyth through Winchester College’s Christian Forum, and that he suffered beatings for five years. On the beatings themselves:
At 30 [lashes], he stopped and embraced me from behind, leaning against my back, nuzzling his face against my neck and whispering how proud he was of me.
I never felt or saw him have an erection and he never touched me sexually, although he, too, was often naked and groaning in spiritual ecstasy while doing the beating. He did the same thing, pretty much every time.
It was not the conventional sexual abuse that people might imagine; it was something more complex. It often crossed my mind that in his upbringing in a religious sect, he was repeating an experience from his own childhood.
On Iwerne more generally, he adds:
By 1980, and two years before my beatings stopped, I had become very uncomfortable at Iwerne Minster. My “antennae” for predators had become quite well developed through my school days and, to my mind, Iwerne Minster was an “unsafe” place. A holiday camp for boys but also, potentially, one for predators.
The writer suffered greatly in the years that followed, and at one time even contemplated arranging a meeting with Smyth in order to kill him.
UPDATE 8 (6 February): The Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, has made a statement saying that he was subjected to a beating by Smyth and has now been in contact with police.
UPDATE 9 (7 February): Channel 4 News has now pursued Smyth to South Africa, where he predictably declined to face the journalist Cathy Newman. Newman did, however, speak to Herbert Ushewokunze Jnr, who was the prosecutor in the 1997 case in Zimbabwe. Ushewokunze says that a private phone call he had made to a relative, in which he had stated that Smyth would be convicted, had been recorded and that this had been used as evidence of his supposed bias. Ushewokunze made the point that even if he deserved a “rap on the knuckles”, there was no reason why another prosecutor couldn’t have taken over the case – yet Smyth was instead allowed to leave the country.
The same segment says that concerns about Smith were raised in Zimbabwe as early as 1986, and there is a screenshot of a document that relates that at a camp in 1991 Smyth forbade underwear and enforced the rule through corporal punishment (“administered either to the naked buttocks or to buttocks covered with a pair of shorts only”). He would also “stand, in the nude, in the vicinity of, or just inside” the shower area, handing the boys soap and shampoo, and one evening he “[led] the boys in prayers whilst he was naked”.
UPDATE 10 (9 February): Matthew Scott, aka Barristerblogger, has a post on the subject, in which he describes his own time as a pupil at Winchester College and his impressions of the Christian Forum, which was regarded by non-members as
as a clique occupying the ground somewhere between ridiculous and unpleasant. There was of course something of an overlap with the more mainstream Christianity in the school, but to those on the outside the Forum members seemed inclined towards self-righteousness and sanctimony, and it did not help that they operated in partial secrecy.
Matthew reports that there was some animosity between the Christian Forum and his father, a teacher at the school and a “quietly religious but very tolerant man who loathed the Christian Forum both for its evangelical theology and because he didn’t much like many its members.” Matthew also describes the headmaster, John Thorn, as “a good and wise man”.
Matthew further notes that the Channel 4 screenshot of the 1982 report includes the criticism that the practice of beatings “is very akin to the Roman Catholic system of confession nnd penance”. As Matthew puts it: “Smyth and his fellow operator were being criticised not just for the beatings themselves, but also because the beatings appeared to be a flirtation with Popery.”
UPDATE 11 (9 February): According to the Guardian, the Church-on-Main told Channel 4 News that it became aware of the allegations against Smyth in September, when it received a phone call from a camp attendee in Zimbabwe. Smyth told the pastor that he had been the victim of “malicious rumours” in Zimbabwe, and that “there was nothing in his past in the UK that we needed to know about.” However, he and his wife were removed from leadership on 2 December, due to “unresolved issues and concerns.” There were also complaints of “heavy-handed” leadership, and the statement claims that
Smyth made a practice of meeting young men at a local sports club for a game of squash, which was “followed by a shower in a common shower, then lunch over which we were told [Smyth] would make generally unsolicited enquiries about the young men’s experience of pornography, masturbation and other sexual matters.”
Smyth was “offering his advice regarding sexual matters that left the person feeling uncomfortable,” the church added.
This seems to me to tend towards sensationalism: presumably the “common shower” is normal at the gym, so here I begin to wonder whether evidence of inappropriate behaviour is being imposed on events in retrospect.
UPDATE 12 (10 February): The Telegraph reports that Smyth has been financially supported for many years by a charitable foundation in the UK also called the Zambesi Trust. The money has continued to flow to Smyth despsite Smyth’s move to South Africa – which apparently was in 2001, four years after the 1997 court case. According to the report:
The most recent trust accounts appear to show direct funding of around £12,000 per annum from the Zambesi Trust to John Smyth, until 2001. Thereafter around £6,000 per annum up until as recently as February 5, 2017.
That funding as now ended in the wake of the Channel 4 News report. However, the charitable trust’s chair – Jamie Colman, heir to the Colman’s mustard empire and a London solicitor – already knew of the allegations and had flown to Zimbabwe to meet complainants’ parents in 1993. According to the article:
Minutes of the meeting show that he accepted that Mr Smyth had beaten boys with a wooden bat, showered with them, and encouraged them to swim naked.
The documents, now disputed by Mr Colman, record him saying that “the beatings and nudity were justified in the context of a weak church; Zambesi Ministries was aimed at portraying Christianity as a rugged, manly religion”.
He also told the parents that Zimbabwean authorities had “a different attitude towards beatings” to British police, and tried to persuade them not to involve lawyers, citing passages from the Bible indicating that “complaints against a Christian should be addressed within the Church”.
The Charity Commission is now “probing” the trust, while the Solicitors Regulation Authority is looking into Colman.
UPDATE 13 (12 February): The Sunday Times reports that John Thorn regrets not having referred Smyth to the police at the time, and that he “felt to blame for acting ‘too slowly’ before he banned John Smyth QC, 75, from entering the school or contacting its pupils.”
1. The village of Iwerne Minster is misspelt in some reports – the BBC thus has “the Irwerne Trust” and some other sites “the Irwene Trust”.
2. These details are from a legal document relating to his application for the case against him to be dismissed (Smyth v Ushewokunze and Anor – ZLR 544 w). The document can be seen in the 1997 edition of The Zimbabwe Law Reports and in Suid-Afrikaanse Hofverslae, Volume 3, both of which are available on Snippet view on Google Books. The text states:
The applicant, who ran several youth camps in Zimbabwe, was charged with culpable homicide as the result of the drowning of a 16-year-old boy at one of the camps in December 1992. He was in addition charged with five counts of crimen injuria arising from his alleged conduct at the same camp during April 1993. The applicant was arrested on 15 September 1997 and taken to a magistrate for initial remand.
…In 1984 he gave up legal practice and came to Zimbabwe with his family on a temporary immigration permit to do Christian teachings. For the initial two years he devoted himself to a mission organisation known as Africa Enterprise. Then, in 1986, he founded Zambesi Ministries, a body whose primary objective is to work in conjunction with High Schools throughout the country and establish camps for pupils during the school holidays. These camps are known as Zambesi Holidays. The first such camp was held in August 1986 at Lake Chivero. Since that time the applicant has directed camps for Grade 7 to Form 6 pupils every school holiday, with the venue changing after a few years to Ruzawi School, in Marondera, and more recently, to Zambesi Ministries’ own centre on Cotter Farm, ten kilometres from Marondera. The camps are normally attended by about ninety boy-campers and thirty leaders, usually senior pupils who have exhibited strong leadership qualities.
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