3 Feb 2017

Christian lawyer who ‘beat boys’ was charged over Zimbabwe death

A Christian youth camp leader accused of brutally beating public schoolboys was later charged over the death of a boy in Africa, Channel 4 News has discovered.

Guide Nyachuru

A Christian youth camp leader accused of brutally beating public schoolboys was later charged over the death of a boy in Africa, Channel 4 News has discovered.

John Smyth QC, an eminent lawyer known personally to the Archbishop of Canterbury, is accused of thrashing schoolboys until they bled while running evangelical summer camps in England between 1978 and 1982.

He was never prosecuted over the allegations, and went on to set up another Christian organisation in Zimbabwe.

In 1992, a 16-year-old boy who attended one of Smyth’s camps in the southern African country was found dead at the bottom of a swimming pool.

Channel 4 News has learned Smyth was charged by local prosecutors with culpable homicide and the abuse of five other boys, but the case collapsed. He denies any involvement in the death, calling it an “unfortunate incident”.

The Church of England and the Christian charity that took over some of the functions of Smyth’s organisation are now facing questions about how they handled the original allegations of beating.

Caned until they bled

Smyth was chairman of the Iwerne Trust, a Christian charity that ran summer holiday camps for boys at English public schools in the late 1970s.

Alleged victims say he caned them – sometimes hundreds of times in a single session – for minor transgressions.

Smyth is said to have ordered boys to strip naked before beating them until they bled. He is alleged to have recited a Bible verse that talks of shedding blood in the “struggle against sin” as well as describing the abuse as “the discipline that God likes”.

John Smyth photographed in the late 1970s

A 1982 Iwerne Trust report into the allegations said boys were left with injuries that were visible for months after the canings. It concluded that there were “sexual overtones” to the alleged abuse but “never any overt sexual activity”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Justin Welby, worked as a dormitory officer at the holiday camps where Smyth was a leader in the late 1970s. He says was on friendly terms with  the barrister but knew nothing of the abuse allegations until they were finally reported to police in 2013.

The 1982 report that contained details of “horrific” beatings was written by vicar Mark Ruston, a friend of Dr Welby.

Death in Zimbabwe

The report was made available to the Iwerne Trust and Winchester College – the top public school attended by some of Smyth’s alleged victims – were told of the allegations after one boy attempted suicide.

Smyth was confronted and asked to resign, but neither the charity nor the school approached the police over the allegations at the time, despite the report describing the beatings as “technically all criminal offences”.

Smyth left Britain in 1984 and was free to set up a similar organisation in Zimbabwe, Zambesi Holidays. He was once again running Christian holiday camps for privately educated boys.

It is alleged that he used the opportunity to mete out more physical abuse to youngsters in his care, and was investigated over the death of a teenager at one of the camps.

Rocky Leanders, who was 15 when he attended a camp in Africa, said Smyth encouraged the boys to swim naked with him.

Leanders alleged that Smyth beat boys with table tennis bats, sometimes hitting them so hard that he broke the bats.

His mother saw the bruises, and contacted a lawyer, who identified more alleged victims.

It emerged that 16-year-old Guide Nyachuru had been found dead in a swimming pool while on a Zambesi holiday in 1992.

His sister Edith, who now lives in Britain, said that the boy was naked when she went to identify his body.

There was no evidence that Smyth was present when Guide went into the pool, but the youth leader attended Guide’s funeral.

He was charged with culpable homicide over the death in 1997 and further counts related to the treatment of other boys, but the case collapsed But the case collapsed when it emerged that the prosecutor had a conflict of interest.


When challenged over the death by Channel 4 News, Smyth said: “That’s an entirely different thing… was a, what was a very unfortunate drowning incident, yes.”

Asked why left Britain, he said: “I’ve written a book about it. Because God called us to Zimbabwe, that’s why we left the country, it was nothing thing at all.”

Smyth went on to live in South Africa, where he became well known in legal circles as a campaigner for Christian values.

Rev David Fletcher

Questions for Titus Trust

The Titus Trust, which took over some of the functions of the Iwerne Trust, said the original allegations against Smyth should have been reported to the police at the time.

It says the Iwerne Trust was a separate legal entity, and told alleged victims it was not responsible for what happened to them.

Channel 4 News has learned that the Reverend David Fletcher, a key figure in the Titus Trust, anonymously donated money to pay for counselling sessions for one of the alleged victims.

Fletcher, who stepped down from the Trust in 2015, is said to be the man ultimately responsible for the decision not to report Smyth to the police when the allegations first surfaced.

This programme has seen legal advice given to the Titus Trust in 2014 warning the organisation that it could be held legally accountable for offences that may have taken place on Iwerne Trust camps.

The advice recommended that Titus make a full report to the police over the historic abuse allegations.

The trust says it handed “all key details” to officers, but Hampshire Police say they did not have enough information to progress their inquiries.