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”.
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In a six month investigation, Channel 4 News spoke to alleged victims who described years of brutal attacks, each involving up to 800 lashes with a garden cane, said to purge them of minor sins such as masturbation and pride.
Many were left wearing adult nappies to stem prolonged bleeding following the attacks which began in the late 1970s and continued for at least three years. The Iwerne Trust and Winchester College, where many of the alleged victims were pupils, were made aware of the allegations in 1982 after one attempted suicide but the Police were not informed at the time.
The QC, who acted for public morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse in her high profile anti-gay censorship trials, is alleged to have carried out the intense beatings in a specially sound-proofed garden shed at his Winchester home after meeting many of his “disciples” while giving talks at nearby Winchester College.
Smyth encouraged the pupils to attend the Iwerne Trust camps where he cultivated small groups of followers in their late teens. They were invited to his home for Sunday lunch, gradually convinced to follow his strict Christian code, and submit themselves to “discipline”.
One alleged victim, Mark Stibbe, said: “He made me strip off my clothes and he got out a cane and started to beat me. He said, ‘This is the discipline that God likes, it’s what’s going to help you become holy’.”
Another alleged victim, Richard Gittins, said: “The bottom bled. We used to have to wear nappies.”
According to The Iwerne Trust report, written in 1982, the boys were given beatings of 100 strokes as punishment for masturbation and 400 for exhibiting the sin of pride. One was said to have received a beating of 800 lashes for an unspecified sin. The report says that eight of the boys received a total of 14,000 lashes, with two receiving 8,000 strokes between them over three years.
The report’s author, Mark Ruston, a vicar and also a friend of Archbishop Welby, said the punishments began with “training beatings” that were “semi-naked” which “gave way to complete nakedness to ‘increase humility’.
The teenage boys were reportedly told: “You want to be the best, don’t you? Let me be a helper to you”.
The alleged violence intensified. One boy said, “I could feel the blood spattering on my legs”, another said, “I fainted sometime after a severe beating”. One simply stated: “I was bleeding for three-and-a-half weeks”.
Mr Smyth was said to have kissed the necks of the naked boys after beating them, and to have recited Bible verses about the virtues of punishment.
Mr Ruston wrote in his report: “The scale and severity of the practice was horrific. I have seen bruised and scored buttocks, some two-and-a-half months after the beating.”
It added that the abuse was violent but not sexual: “There was a very frequent association with sexual sins of a comparatively minor kind (masturbation and impure thoughts) and too many sexual overtones, though it is clear that there was never any overt sexual activity.”
The attacks came to light when one alleged victim, by then a 21-year-old student at Cambridge, attempted to take his own life after being ordered to submit himself to yet another beating. It led The Iwerne Trust to commission the 1982 report.
However, despite its findings, The Iwerne Trust never reported the abuse to the police. Winchester College, a number of whose pupils were attacked, also failed to inform the police at the time, they say because the “parents of victims felt their sons should be spared further trauma”.
Instead, Mr Smyth was advised to move overseas, where his work running youth camps continued.
Last night the Church of England admitted information should have been passed to the police at the time.
Graham Tilby, the Church of England’s national safeguarding adviser, said: “The report into these horrific activities, drawn up by those linked with the Iwerne Trust … should have been forwarded to the police at the time. Clearly more could have been done at the time to look further into the case.”
They have now set up a team made up of six full-time staff to review all relevant files, and are urging anyone with information to report it to the police.
Archbishop Welby said he worked at The Iwerne camps, also known as ‘Bash camps’, but left England to work abroad in 1978 where he remained for five years, and was “completely unaware” of any abuse.
He said he was first informed of allegations in 2013 after the Bishop of Ely had been contacted by an alleged victim, and ensured the police had been “contacted immediately”.
A statement said: “The Archbishop of Canterbury was a dormitory officer at Iwerne holiday camp in the late Seventies, where boys from public schools learnt to develop life as Christians. John Smyth was one of the main leaders at the camp and although the Archbishop worked with him, he was not part of the inner circle of friends; no one discussed allegations of abuse by John Smyth with him.”
The statement concluded: “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.”
Winchester College denied there had been a cover up, and said the college authorities “did their best… “in accordance with the standards of the time”. They said they have since contacted the police and will assist in any investigation.
A spokesperson said: “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 respected.
“College authorities did their best to deal responsibly and sensitively, in accordance with the standards of the time. The law today is very different from 35 years ago, insisting that any allegation must be immediately reported to the authorities.”
The Iwerne Trust’s activities have now been taken over by The Titus Trust. Channel 4 News has seen legal advice to The Titus Trust on the abuse allegations. It states that The Titus Trust ”was obviously intended to be the legal successor to The Iwerne Trust and, as such, cannot avoid dealing with this issue.”
However, The Titus Trust insists it is a “different legal entity” to The Iwerne Trust that took over some functions of The Iwerne Trust but did not absorb it.
The Titus Trust told Channel 4 News: “These are very disturbing allegations and our thoughts are primarily with all those affected. 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.”