The Church of England has tonight apologised unreservedly after a Channel 4 News investigation revealed that a prominent Anglican evangelical and former colleague of the Archbishop of Canterbury is alleged to have severely assaulted boys and young men for decades.
The alleged abuse was carried out by prominent QC and part time judge called John Smyth, who was chairman of the Iwerne Trust, a charity closely linked to the church which ran Christian holiday camps for public school students.
The Church admitted that it had “failed terribly”, after this programme learned that the Trust had discovered the alleged abuse in 1982, but failed to report it to the police.
Winchester College, where some of the young men met Smyth, was made aware of the alleged abuse, but also failed to report it to the police at the time. There is no suggestion that any abuse took place at the College or with the knowledge of its staff.
The Archbishop’s apology comes after a six month investigation by Channel 4 News, in which we tracked down and spoke with many of Smyth’s alleged victims. One man told us that he and other boys were beaten so violently by Smyth that they had to wear nappies to staunch the bleeding.
The statement on behalf of the Archbishop, who was a colleague of Smyth’s at the Iwerne Trust, said: “We recognise that many institutions fail catastrophically, but the Church is meant to hold itself to a far, far higher standard and we have failed terribly. For that the Archbishop apologises unequivocally and unreservedly to all survivors.”
Smyth was a moral crusader who made his name as a barrister representing the Christian campaigner Mary Whitehouse in a landmark prosecution against the Gay News newspaper.
In the Church he was an influential figure as chair of the Iwerne Trust, a group which promoted the bible to young people.
Justin Welby was a dormitory officer at a camp where Smyth was one of the main leaders in the late 1970s. They subsequently exchanged “the occasional card”, Lambeth Palace said last night.
But it was at Winchester College in the late 70s and 80s that Smyth met many teenagers, who likened him to a cult leader.
He cultivated small groups of followers, over whom he developed a form of psychological control. Favoured young men were invited to visit him at his home for Sunday lunch.
Now men in their fifties, they allege Smyth would recite passages of the bible to them, before beating them with a cane in his garden shed.
Mark Stibbe, who went on to be a vicar and is now an author, told us: “It was along the lines of, this is the discipline that God likes, this is what’s going to help you to become holy.”
Richard Gittins, who met Smyth at Magdalene College, Cambridge, told us: “We used to have to put nappies on and at Magdalene we had a formal hall where you’d have grace, and then everybody would sit down together.
And in the process of sitting down, we perfected the ability to sit down really quickly, before your bottom touched the chair, and in the last couple of inches you’d just ease yourselves down; so it didn’t look like you were in any pain.”
Another man, who has given evidence to us anonymously, said he grew so fearful of the beatings that he tried to take his own life in 1981.
The suicide attempt prompted the Iwerne Trust to launch an investigation, and compile a confidential report, seen by Channel 4 News.
It described what it called the “beatings” of 22 young men.
“The scale and severity of the practice was horrific…8 received about 14 thousand strokes: 2 of them having some 8000 strokes over three years,” the document, written in 1982, noted.
Despite the findings of the report, the Iwerne Trust did not inform the police. Instead, a senior figure in the Iwerne Trust wrote to John Smyth, telling him to leave the country. He went on to live in Zimbabwe, and then South Africa.
In its statement, Lambeth Palace said that by 2013 the police had been notified about allegations against Smyth. The Archbishop’s Chaplain showed Mr Welby a letter written by the Bishop of Ely to the Bishop of Cape Town referring to “concerns” expressed by “an alleged survivor”.
The Titus Trust, which absorbed the Iwerne Trust in 2000, said: “It was only in 2014 that the board of The Titus Trust was informed about this matter, after which we submitted a serious incident report to the Charity Commission and provided full disclosure to the police. The allegations are very grave and they should have been reported to the police when they first became known in 1981.”
Winchester College told us:
“Winchester College deeply regrets the terrible ordeals of the victims and pays tribute to their courage in speaking out.
“The College has never sought to conceal these dreadful events. Nothing was held back in 1982 in the school’s enquiries.
“Housemasters were informed, and many parents consulted. The then Headmaster met John Smyth and required him to undertake never again to enter the College or contact its pupils.
“No report was made to the police at the time, not least because, understandably, parents of the victims felt that their sons should be spared further trauma, and these wishes were respected.”
We put our allegations to Mr Smyth on camera, and he said: “I’m not talking about what we did at all”. He called some of the claims nonsense and declined to respond to further requests.
An Ungodly Crime? will be aired on Channel 4 News at 7pm tomorrow and Friday.