Iwerne David Conner Dean Windsor John Smyth
Church of England

Iwerne: what did David Conner (now Dean of Windsor) and others know about John Smyth’s regime of abuse?

Many years ago, I worked as a duty solicitor, undertaking day and night visits to the local police stations. There were not many on the rota and it was a busy time.

One night I learned something about the limits of human observation, recollection and witness reliability. I was about to leave the cell area when the door was flung open and in tumbled what I can only describe as a rugby ‘driving maul’ with one of my regular clients, Billy (not his real name), serving as the ball carrier. He was struggling as best he could with officers crowded round hanging onto arms and legs whilst others propelled the whole group towards us.

Suddenly an arm reached over the top of the maul and struck him on the back of the head with the heel of the hand. The Duty Sergeant standing next to me responded immediately and instinctively. He was a good sort, old school, and well respected. “You can cut that out,” he bellowed. Everyone looked up, shocked, including Billy, who saw me standing next to the Sergeant, and became more co-operative. “See what it’s like, Mr Sewell,” he said, as I reassured him that I would be staying on to sort his case out once the Sergeant had booked him in, in the usual way. Billy knew the score.

In due course, I recused myself as acting as his lawyer: having become his witness, the Sergeant and I gave evidence about the events and the offending officer was eventually dismissed from the force. There was one detail, largely irrelevant, on which the Sergeant and I disagreed. As the melée had tumbled towards us, there was a white-shirted officer among the blue uniforms who I identified as a young Chinese detective, but when I talked to the Sergeant and we shared recollections, working out who was where and doing what, he assured me that the detective I thought I saw was not in the area that night; indeed he was not on duty at all. It mattered not: that officer had done nothing wrong; the Sergeant had no reason to lie, knew his officers better than I, and had access to the duty rotas. I accepted his account as likely to be more correct than my observation and recollection, but the thought that I might have been mistaken in that aspect undermined my confidence in my overall account. Happily, all did not turn on my evidence alone.

All these years later I remain puzzled over what I ‘knew’ that night. Intellectually I might defer to the Sergeant’s account, but I can’t see how I would have made such a mistake. The police were not very diverse in those days; Chinese officers were extremely rare, and the officer in question was doubly unusual as the only one involved not wearing police uniform. I’ll probably never know exactly what happened and whether I made a straight error or had somehow constructed a ‘false memory’.

I find that being able to draw on such personal experience of the problems of perception helps in the way I approach the ongoing conundrum of who knew what about the case of John Smyth and his horrific abuse of young men arising out of his privileged access to them within Winchester College and the Iwerne Camps which had been created to recruit and develop Christian leaders from elite backgrounds, who would go on to play dominant roles in the Church – a project which has had no small measure of success.

It is now approaching three months since John Smyth died. The scandal of what happened, and who knew what and when, was always going to come out, and this blog played a small part in raising its profile as the victims of Smyth found their voice in the post-IICSA environment. Neither then, nor in the months following Smyth’s death, have those closest to those murky events, and the cover-up that ensued, reached out to the victims for whom deep recollections have been stirred. I hope I do not sound too judgmental to say that I expected better of people serving the Lord.

We may not currently know definitively who knew what and when, but there is plain documentary evidence, notably the Ruston Report, bearing the identifiable initials of its distribution list. Those individuals plainly knew the full extent of the problem yet closed ranks.

Additionally, there is circumstantial evidence against others. The then Chaplain of Winchester College, David Conner, now Dean of Windsor, is apparently on the record as saying he knew absolutely nothing about it when John Smyth was abruptly excluded from the school and its grounds, and remained in ignorance for a long time thereafter.

Inevitably victims ask whether he would really have been uninformed and utterly incurious when told that the Chair of Iwerne Trust, a much admired contributor to the school’s Christian Forum, was instantly regarded persona non grata? Writing of this time in his biography, the then headmaster John Thorn recalled that “the Christian Forum was shattered”. Victims question whether the school’s Chaplain asked absolutely nothing, and inevitably query whether those events truly did not register in his memory.

Has the Church of England fully investigated these matters and this denial? We know that significant victims have never been interviewed, six years after putting the matter into the public domain. This is hardly good process.

After his testimony about Peter Ball at IICSA, Lord Carey came under criticism and even ridicule because as a Christian gentleman he just could not believe that a bishop could look him in the eye and lie about such matters. In these more informed times, we ought at the very least to be confident that the modern Church addresses any denials with good prior preparation and a robust scepticism. We surely cannot simply accept the answer: “Well, we asked him, and he assures us he knew nothing.” Maybe he didn’t, which is absolutely a possible outcome, but we will look foolish and disingenuous if we we are seen to be less than assiduous in our preparation and execution of the inquiry. The Church of England cannot implicitly criticise Lord Carey, and then exactly replicate the error.

Yet if the then Chaplain of Winchester College was not informed, that makes the next stage of analysis even more intriguing. Was it that he was not trusted? Was he judged likely to either ‘spill the beans’ or inadvertently say the wrong thing to the wrong people? Were those who did know the full sordid details of the Ruston Report making a character judgment that he would not go out of his way to ask awkward questions and so could be kept out of the loop? If so, such calculation hardly puts those who made it in a good light. To act like this they would have been highly calculating and highly strategic in orchestrating the management of the cover-up.

Be that as it may, it appears to be a reasonable historic inference to say that over time a significant number of others amongst the great and the good, especially in the higher echelons of UK Evangelicalism, either came to knew the broad facts of Smyth’s activities, or had sufficient reason to be suspicious about his sudden decision to turn his back on a glittering career, social and professional lionisation, and to step away from stellar regard within his brand of churchmanship.

Many of these figures who did know are still under episcopal authority and within the disciplinary codes of the CofE, which may be the only structures capable of calling them to account. The successor organisation to Iwerne, the Titus Trust, will not have these levers of power or disciplinary mechanisms. As far as we know, not one of these Anglican priests has been suspended pending investigation into their safeguarding failures, or asked to undertake a safeguarding assessment. Both courses of action are, of course, ‘neutral’ acts without connotation of guilt. The safeguarding assessment would, of course, require proper engagement with the issues and the giving of substantial answers in good faith. Why hesitate to deploy them? It may be awkward, inconvenient and embarrassing to initiate them at this late time, but why not? That cross may need to be carried for reconciliation to begin. It would, at the very least be a signifier of serious intent. Not doing so conveys a message of indifference.

We should at this point remind ourselves that none of those under discussion was a direct abuser; nor is it the case that any are alleged to have know of Smyth’s abuse as it was happening. The problem here is familiar in political circles: ‘It’s always the cover-up that gets you.’

Talking to those close to the story, it is clear that the perceived ongoing institutional reluctance to take action may be due to complicating factors. First, we have the multi-dimensional character of Smyth’s involvement. When he exploited his position, was he acting as the Chair of the Iwerne Trust, an invited guest at Winchester College, a friend of some of the families, or part of the wider Evangelical/Anglican overlap?

With legal liability looming, church administrators, legal advisors and insurers all have professional duties and legitimate parts to play in addressing the story, and in one sense, though we might rage against the complexity, it is hard to be blaming each and every professional for contributing to the delay. What surely needs to happen is for each ‘stakeholder’ to agree to appoint a single agency to negotiate the settlements and support for victims, and for any division of liability to be disputed subsequently.

Before moving to the second aspect, let me properly record that the Church of England has not been inactive. In recent times there has been some outreach to those abused by Smyth by the Lead Safeguarding Bishop Peter Hancock, and at a more personal level by the Bishop of Guildford, Andrew Watson, who has placed in the public domain that he is a Smyth survivor. Such initiatives are sincere and welcome, but the survivors have ongoing legitimate areas of complaint.

When the matter came formally to the attention the CofE in 2012/13 with a specific complaint by a victim, a letter was sent alerting the Anglican Church of Southern Africa; unfortunately the text of that letter has not been published. When people are talking about cover-ups of the issue, it seems imprudent to feed the suspicion by such a refusal. For what it’s worth, the victims do not disbelieve an effort at communication was made. If the church is reticent because the terms of the letter and the follow-up were sub-optimal, the victims have already ‘priced in’ that aspect within their critique.

There is a further major complication for the church over the tensions associated with the Evangelical movements REFORM and GAFCON. These potentially secessionist movements present real problems for the Anglican leadership, which is treading carefully and sensitively in its engagement with those who threaten schism over well known issues. Unfortunately for the Smyth survivors, some among these potentially secessionist leaders are the same people who were engaged in the Iwerne project, so digging up the skeletons of ‘who knew what and when’ about Smyth is likely to be extremely embarrassing to those with whom the church is about to engage in these important delicate negotiations.

An interesting exploration of these developing tensions, as our church plans for the 2020 Lambeth Conference, is to be found on the ‘Surviving Church‘ blog, and I would encourage you to read it.

The Smyth victims are entitled to use their inside information and name names at a time of their choosing. However, it is already quite plain that the REFORM leadership is populated by many who knew about Smyth relatively early on. Not least among these are the Titus Trustees, the successor Trust to Iwerne, once the scandal emerged. The REFORM regional contacts include the current and previous chairmen of Titus as well as a number of other known ‘Iwerne men’. Such significant figures have let down victims dreadfully: it is known that some trustees had knowledge of Smyth’s abuse as early as 1982 and covered up his crimes, allowing him to depart to South Africa and continue the satisfying of his own psycho-sexual hang-ups with unsuspecting young men in subsequent years. A number of REFORM leaders will have been told much more about the abuse in 2014 in their capacity as Titus Trustees.

Yet victims complain that all that has been forthcoming since Smyth died is the most generalised and anodyne of statements of regret, and this always irritates survivors – always. Some describe this as ‘re-abuse’, and say that in many ways it is worse than the terrible original experience. In both, it is the emotional sense of powerlessness that does the damage, and in the case of the Smyth victims it is even worse.

The victims are currently seeing themselves sidelined because the respect, sensitivity, and solicitousness which ought rightfully to be accorded to them by the Church of England is being directed instead to the very people whom they regard as having been actively complicit in covering up for Smyth, and the ongoing ignoring of real pastoral need. Let us not forget, those covering up and the victims had been school-fellows, members of the same church; they had been friends, they played together and prayed together. The sense of isolation betrayal is high – ‘Et tu, Brute?’

This is all highly problematic both for the victims and for the Church of England. Plainly the victims have an interest in resolution and, because some of them are personally well-off financially, it is not primarily about money. It is the intransigence to resolve this in non-pecuniary ways that has propelled some into litigation: the church and the Titus Trust resisted alternative resolution in a timely fashion, so inevitably some of the victims are turning to secular remedies whose only currency is cash. This need not have happened.

A ‘peace and reconciliation’ process was not and still may not be impossible, even at this stage. I understand that real unconditional forgiveness has been offered by some of those victims to those whose abuse included being manipulated into serving in the role of recruiters for Smyth. Such enablers are rightly regarded as victims, even though their role is inevitably more problematic. The forgiveness which has already been extended to such folk suggests that the victims have a firmer grasp of Christian ethics than some of the prominent clergy resisting examination of their roles and neglecting the imperative to reach out – either privately or through mediation – to those they have harmed.

On the BBC ‘Sunday programme’, Harry Farley reported that some richer, potentially schismatic churches have been signifying their seriousness by developing significant property portfolios, the better to fund their latest project. These are clearly not idle threats. Yet, surely, if one is planning to lead a schism on the basis of asserted integrity and faithfulness to Scripture, there ought to be a parallel integrity in related matters.

Justice matters, reconciliation matters, truth matters. If the Smyth victims are being truthful – and I have no reason to doubt them – a significant number of those presenting hurdles to Church unity have varying degrees of complicity in the Smyth cover-up (and the consequential further abuse of young African boys) via the application of the familiar practice of ‘catch and release’, which historically applied in such cases.

I have come to appreciate that the Church of England is not the most discrete of organisations: information is not only power but currency – I give you something, you reciprocate and share with me. We have already heard from those who heard about Smyth at dinner parties over the decades. The concentric circles of knowledge are more likely than not to have reached many dozens of the ‘big beasts’ of Evangelicalism. They can and should be doing better over this toxic legacy.

I have previously stressed that there is nothing in this which is intrinsically unique to Evangelicalism, for all traditions have been tainted by the abuse of the vulnerable, and indeed by poor management of the consequences. What is perhaps specific to this case is the brutality, the degree of knowledge widely disseminated among so many of significant stature, and the dimension of personal let-down of old friends.

The silence continues, and that continues to hurt victims. It is wrong that the reputations of the ‘great and the good’ are still thought to be more important than the welfare and ongoing pain of the victims.

As my initial story suggests, I have a degree of sympathy with many who may have seen a little, wondered what it meant, or perhaps put their uncertainty aside, but with hindsight now realise that they might have been more curious.Those in such positions can still help to make amends by talking to those they knew in those times and encouraging each other to share what they knew and with whom they shared it. Bishop Peter and Bishop Andrew might be good people to entrust with such information.

I have little doubt that the truth will be revealed, and those responsible for the cover-up will be identified. Private Eye has already published some names behind their paywall. The sooner this is faced, the healthier it will be for everyone. I would urge all those closely associated with the Iwerne and Titus trusts and their associated projects to be asked by their followers: ‘What did you know, when did you know it, and with whom did you share the information?’

We cannot close this tragic story until those questions have been conclusively and convincingly answered. Anyone unwilling to develop and engage in a timely and comprehensive process for truth and reconciliation for the victims should seriously consider their leadership priorities. Followers should carefully evaluate any reluctance in such leadership.

Jesus taught that a house built on sand cannot stand. He told us to delay approaching the altar with gifts until we have made peace with our estranged brother. He also urged us to remove the beam from our own eye before addressing the speck in our neighbour’s eye. I hope that those contemplating schism based upon a platform of integrity will first address and confess any personal vulnerability in the Smyth cover-up.

There will be little integrity in failing to do so, and any departure without having done so would put me in mind of the house guest of whom Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The louder he talked of his honour, the faster we counted the spoons.”