John Smyth, who was accused of the sadistic beatings of young men under the guise of Christian discipleship, has died at his home in Cape Town.
This brings to an end one aspect of a case that began in the 1970s/80s and has many unresolved questions to this day. The accusations against Smyth were many: he has been described as the Jimmy Savile of the Church of England, and, like Savile, the full story only seems likely to come out after his death, following which we will learn how people who ‘saw’ didn’t ‘see’; how dots were not joined up, and how wilful blindness descended on institutions which felt that confronting the truth when it needed to be confronted was too painful and too inconvenient for them. Never mind the victims; that’s the way of the world. Yet ‘never mind the victims’ is never the way of Christ.
Before Smyth’s death, we all had to tip-toe around the allegations, mindful of legal propriety. I, who have argued for proper process for Bishop George Bell, am especially mindful of that. I can now say that when I last wrote here I had to re-edit what I had written on learning that His Grace and I might be entering ‘Cliff Richard territory‘ with legal process about to begin just as my piece was posted.
Yet it wasn’t Bell or Cliff territory really. In both of those cases, reputations were trashed on little or no evidence. In Smyth’s case, like Savile’s the allegations were corroborated by a consistent modus operandi, evidenced by something like 26 known victims in the UK including a serving Bishop, and maybe 70 more victims in Africa. It can now be revealed that as I wrote my last piece on Smyth the police had just been advised by the CPS that the evidence had reached the required threshold for a prosecution to be commenced and extradition sought. After many intervening years, that is a high evidential bar to be cleared, and it was.
Whether Smyth knew, and whether this news contributed to his demise directly or indirectly, is not known. I hope he knew or surmised, because only then could he have begun to process the enormity and the consequences of his crimes, and that is, of course, a precursor to full repentance.
When I sent the news of Smyth’s death to a Conservative Evangelical General Synod colleague, he closed his email to me with a characteristic sign-off. I had been looking for a way which would assist me in the processing and writing about this news, and he gave it to me in his closing words: “In Christ’s Service”.
It was not in Christ’s service when John Smyth satisfied his own repressed sexual predilections as he engaged in the squalid thrashing of the faithful in his garden shed. It was not in Christ’s service when those allegations were investigated and the report knowingly and deliberately suppressed to deny justice to his British victims for 35 years. It was not in in Christ’s service when Winchester College invoked all the privileged power of the Establishment to spirit the offender quietly out of the country to avoid scandal to themselves. It was not in Christ’s service that the trustees of the Iwerne Trust did everything they could to ensure that the victims and their families – beset by fear, uncertainty, embarrassment, ambivalence, impulses to forgive, post-traumatic stress and a maelstrom of other complex emotions – were exploited into silence when legally, morally and theologically the case presented problems shame and inconvenience to them.
It was not in Christ’s service that the problem was exported and flourished in Africa, where there was an even lesser chance of Smyth’s activities being identified and stopped. I was about to mention widespread corruption within the processes there, but then reflected on what I have written above and recalled that in the light of this story, British Christians have no right to cast the first stone. It goes on.
It was not in Christ’s service when Smyth was supported in his exile after the brutality of the allegations were known by the donor. It was not in Christ’s service when the Ruston report surfaced in as yet unclear circumstances again in 2012/13, when the re-branding of the Iwerne Project saw the Titus Trust and the Church of England presented with an opportunity to address the problems and implications of the scandal within their own ranks, yet they failed even to begin to address the full implications. A public apology only emerged in 2017 after Cathy Newman put the story before the general public on Channel 4 News. That, in itself, is a major indictment.
While the institutions involved were able to hide behind the excuse of ‘ongoing investigation’ in relation to the substantive issue of Smyth’s legal guilt or innocence, there was a secondary and entirely feasible area of investigation concerning how the Ruston report, and the implications of it, were handled – or rather mishandled.
It was not in Christ’s service when the Church of England finally did reach out to Africa, but after writing a few letters without response the belated effort to warn the local church of the risks to which they and their young were exposed appear to have petered out rather ineffectually.
Upon hearing the announcement of Smyth’s death, the Mail on Sunday quoted one of his victim accusers: “As terrible as some of the things he did were, I want everyone to remember he was a child once himself and that his family deserve some peace and quiet at this time.”
That is a statement of considerable grace, and it is by no means atypical of what I hear when I talk to victims. In my previous article on this issue I quoted the Peter Ball victim Neil Todd, who committed suicide after experiencing the ‘blanking’ of victims by the church: “I am not a vindictive person,” he said. “I only wish for an acknowledgement that my experience was a reality and that the Church of England take responsibility for their inaction.”
Similarly, I have advocated for a serious engagement with Fr Matt Ineson, and vividly recall that in our first conversation he spoke of praying for his abuser. Later, after that abuser committed suicide on the day he was due in court, Matt has talked to me of how that affected him. While the church and it’s crippling procedures continue to twist the knife for him, he sorrowfully explained how disappointed he is that so few in the church seem to grasp what it is like for him to carry the burden of knowing that his quest for justice and the protection of others led directly to the death of his abuser who seems to have had mental issues of his own. “They let him down too,” he told me graciously and sorrowfully. As yet, the Church of England has not offered to share that burden by acknowledging its own lack of pastoral support to the accused.
Such a complex mix of emotions may well overwhelm some of the Smyth victims with this latest news. It may put some of them at risk as they struggle to process anger, frustration, relief, guilt, exhaustion, and other responses that few inexperienced in the field can begin to contemplate. They need urgent outreach and resources NOW if we are to learn from Neil Todd’s tragic death.
Regular readers may recall the victim ‘Dave’ when I asked on his behalf, ‘Why is the Church of England’s compassion so constipated?‘, which is still a good question. ‘Dave’ has suffered additional re-abuse by the church, but I have had to put his story on hold to publish this piece. I mention him here to remind readers that he never wanted to sue the church, but only receive the specialist help he needed but was denied. He has been forced into litigation by our poor response, but time and again we see grace and undeserved consideration from victims. Individually, church members including senior bishops say the right things, but institutionally we so often fail the broken, and that too is never in Christ’s service.
Victim campaigner Gilo is also generously complementary about the sincere engagement in mediation by one of the bishops he felt to have initially let him down. Grace has done its healing work between them, but Grace has not yet been invited into the darkness of a John Smyth’s ‘activities’: the church and Christian organisations have looked to the ground and shuffled their feet awkwardly as they put their faith and trust in protective ‘professional’ opinion. They should be putting their faith and trust in Christ alone, and asking themselves what they must now do in Christ’s service.
Reaching out and costly discipleship are imperative in situations such as these. If our declared regret is to be perceived as being remotely meaningful, it needs to be expressed in real and manifest turning towards a better way – repentance, if you will. It will cost money, effort, resources, lengthy and honest debate, reputations and heartache, but it must be done.
And at this point we come to a paradox.
The theological tradition within which John Smyth worked rightly prioritises true repentance. It was this theme which he exploited as he pruriently probed the ‘sexual sins’ of young men, and urged them toward penitence. Yet was not that virtue totally neglected time and again by those influential Evangelicals who put him away quickly (and quietly) for their own convenience?
By doing so, instead of practising what they preached, did not many who heard, knew, gossiped, confided and/or suspected that Smyth was a serious problem, cut him off from the very people who had the relationships, the knowledge the theology and the shared culture to bring him to proper repentance and reconciliation with those he injured?
We are not talking small numbers here. There must be dozens who knew to varying degrees, and they failed the victims primarily, but also their fellow Evangelicals who are waking up to the shame of what was done by people they trusted. They also betrayed the memory of ‘Bash Nash’, Smyth’s family, and yes, maybe even John Smyth himself.
After the story emerged in public and he denied responsibility to Cathy Newman, he suffered excommunication from his South African church, which described his responses to the allegations when finally put to him as “evasive and combative”.
The worry is that the same might be said of the Church of England, the Iwerne Trust and the Titus Trust, as the court of public opinion surveys the history of denial, inaction and victim estrangement, for the truth is that nobody, but nobody, in any of those organisations has suffered as a result of the failures. Nobody has lost a reputation, nobody has put a hand up to acknowledge knowing or suspecting, nobody has yet said: “Well, I did wonder about that…” Nobody has stepped down or offered a personal mea culpa.
I do not want a witch-hunt. I hate the idea of scapegoating, especially when the collective institutional failure has been so widespread over the years. Yet one of my favourite social commentators Thomas Sowell points us in the right direction when he identifies the principle: “Never trust a hierarchy where nobody pays a price for failure.”
That is what happened and is still happening here, in the CofE in the Iwerne Trust or the Titus Trust.
The tragedy is that our multiple victims stand and watch like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, waiting patiently, achingly, longingly for that first glimpse of hope; for that indication of repentance and the acknowledgement of personal responsibility which alone will open the pathway to peace and permit closure. Introspection is beneficial when it yields true repentance, ad all Christians are exhorted to follow where Christ leads. When did he ever lead a cover-up of sin? Did he not warn his disciples of a future which would be characterised by shame and worldly rejection?
There is nothing wrong with Anglicanism or Evangelicalism which cannot be put right by what is right about Anglicanism and Evangelicalism. That is why I have chosen to explore these ideas based upon the sound advice of my correspondent who points the way out of this quagmire. We will escape by faithfully acting in Christ’s service. It is also in accordance with the approach of philosopher EF Schumacher, who once advised: “We must do the right thing, because if we do not do the right thing we shall be doing the wrong thing and then we shall become part of the problem and not part of the solution.”
That is where we have been going wrong. It is time for change.