What the church knew but never said
C of E assaults, Issue 1438
THE Archbishop of Canterbury was quick to react when he heard that Channel 4 News was about to accuse his old acquaintance John Smyth QC, an evangelical Christian and former barrister to Mary Whitehouse, of savage assaults on teenage boys and young men.
“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,” Justin Welby said before the report was even broadcast. “For that the Archbishop apologises unequivocally and unreservedly to all survivors.”
Until then, however, Welby had been rather less quick off the mark. By his own admission he was told early in 2013 about Smyth’s monstrous behaviour – but said nothing. Only four years later, when the news was about to break, did he suddenly feel the need to declare that the entire Church of England had “failed terribly”.
What surprises some of Smyth’s victims is that Welby hadn’t known about them much earlier than 2013. In his statement he noted that many of them attended annual Christian camps for top public schoolboys run by the Iwerne Trust, a charity chaired by Smyth. As a student in the late 1970s, Welby was one of Smyth’s “dormitory officers” at the camps, which were run on the lines of a Victorian public school to produce an officer class of muscular evangelicals as the next generation of church leaders. According to the archbishop, “no one discussed allegations of abuse by John Smyth with him”.
Many of Smyth’s victims were also pupils at Winchester: although he had no official connection with the school, he lived nearby. After Sunday chapel he would invite boys back to his house, supposedly for Christian discussions. In fact he was taking them to his shed and flogging them – all in the name of Jesus, to cleanse them of impure thoughts. The standard cure for masturbation was 100 strokes of the cane; for the sin of pride, 400.
One victim who had received thousands of lashes over four years was told by Smyth that he could expect a “special” beating for his birthday. Unable to face the prospect, he tried to kill himself – but only after sending an anonymous letter to the Rev David Fletcher, an Iwerne trustee, about Smyth’s sado-evangelism.
Failed suicide attempt
After this failed suicide attempt, the panic-stricken Iwerne Trust asked the Rev Mark Ruston to investigate. He located 13 victims, some of whom had received thousands of strokes of the cane. “The scale and severity of the practice was horrific,” Ruston wrote in his March 1982 report, which the Eye has obtained. “I have seen bruised and sore buttocks, some two-and-a-half months after the beating… [Smyth], wanting ‘to be the best for God’, beat as hard as he could.”
Ruston didn’t only talk to victims: he also contacted former camp officials. One obvious interviewee should have been his close friend and ex-flatmate, Justin Welby. Yet the archbishop says that Ruston (who has since died) never spoke to him about it. Nor, it seems, did Welby hear anything from another good friend, the Rev David Fletcher, the Iwerne trustee who commissioned Ruston’s inquiry.
Ruston’s report was sent to all the Iwerne trustees, including several prominent clergymen, and to the headmaster of Winchester, John Thorn. None of them saw fit to contact the police. Thorn merely asked Smyth to give a private undertaking that “my mission can no longer lie with boys and young men”.
Thorn told the Sunday Times this month that it “probably would have been more sensible” to contact the police, but he had thought schoolboy victims wouldn’t want the scandal publicised. Strange, then, that in 1989 he publicised it in his memoirs, describing the trouble caused by “a neighbouring barrister, a Queen’s Counsel” who had recruited boys to his version of muscular Christianity, “punishing them physically when they confessed to him that they had sinned”.
Doing God’s work
The Iwerne Trust became the Titus Trust in 1997, for reasons that remain unclear. (“Did they,” wonders one churchman who had dealings with it, “want to distance themselves from things that might come back to haunt them?”) Yet although it inherited Iwerne’s files, the one containing Ruston’s report must have gone astray. “It was only in 2014 that the board of the Titus Trust became aware of these allegations,” according to a statement two weeks ago.
All very puzzling, given that plenty of Iwerne officials and trustees continued with the Titus Trust after the 1997 handover – not least the Rev David Fletcher, who had been “aware of these allegations” for more than 30 years. When the trustees did officially become aware, three years ago, they retained the top Christian media consultant Andrew Graystone to advise them what to do – but after he recommended an independent investigation they recoiled in horror, stopped paying his monthly retainer and made no further contact with him.
And so the truth remained hidden for a few years longer, through sins of omission by people and institutions that claimed to be doing God’s work. “The whole thing displays frightening blindness,” the Rev Mark Ruston concluded in his 1982 report. “Blind to Scripture, to sense, to propriety… and to the very heart of the Gospel.”
The Smyth victim who attempted suicide 35 years ago put it more bluntly to the Eye last week: “Why didn’t any of these people who knew so much give anything to the police?”
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