john smyth iwerne abuse
Church of England

John Smyth tortured Christian boys at Iwerne – where’s the CofE inquiry?

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) hearings into the crimes and cover-up relating to Peter Ball have rightly shocked many in the Church of England, yet what may not be widely appreciated is that there is an even worse scandal in terms of scale, scope and brutality which will not be considered by IICSA, but whose legacy continues to challenge us. I refer to the story of the victims of John Smyth, collectively known as the Iwerne Camp Survivors.

The Iwerne Trust offered Christian camp experiences to mostly young men, drawn largely from the public schools. It had been created intentionally to develop the brightest and the best for senior leadership roles within society and the Church of England. Though not formally part of the CofE, Iwerne was promoted, staffed, and sanctioned for decades by senior Anglican bishops, clergy and young volunteers. The 1982 brochure had the endorsements of Lord Coggan and Bishop David Sheppard. Christian lives and vocations were undoubtedly shaped within Iwerne, but in a dark corner it seems to have also nurtured one of the nastiest sadistic regimes of physical and spiritual abuse that any church has encountered, allegedly perpetrated by John Smyth QC who was a well-connected and well-regarded Establishment figure as a senior lawyer, morality campaigner and ‘muscular Christian’.

The latter gift he is said to have exercised through a perverted misuse of biblical texts by which he ensnared faithful young men to undergo extreme pain and degradation at his hands in his garden shed. The trauma has left many with life-long emotional wounds and other profound consequences.

Eventually the Iwerne Trust commissioned a report to inform its trustees as to the full extent of Smyth’s nauseating behaviour. It detailed the caning of 22 young men on their bare bottoms: “..eight received 14,000 strokes.. two suffered 8,000 strokes over 3 years.. eight spoke of bleeding on most occasions”. The report recorded the victims own words: “I could feel the blood spattering down my legs.. I was bleeding for three and a half weeks..”

The Report – hand-marked ‘strictly confidential’ – was prepared in 1982 by the Rev’d Mark Ruston, vicar of the Round Church in Cambridge. It bears the initials of eight individual addressees – all Anglicans, some clergy – who by ordinary inference are more likely than not to have read and/or known and discussed its contents. It was the reason why John Smyth was removed from his role within the Trust, gave up a glittering career as a leading QC, and quietly left the country in what can only be described as an Establishment cover-up.

Even those who did not know the detail of the report must have been puzzled at the disappearance of Smyth and wondered. Plainly a significant number of people in the organisation and the schools with which John Smyth also associated knew something was wrong and looked the other way.

As I considered these matters and how to handle them, I was challenged to justify the assertion that this matter is worse than that of Peter Ball. It is true that the Iwerne story of abuse did not occur directly under the aegis of the Church of England, but it is worse than Ball in terms of its severity, scale, and the extent of direct knowledge of people within the Church of England who ought to have known better and acted to safeguard the young victims.

Perhaps it is not a CofE matter, but neither is not not a CofE matter! What exactly it is, and our proper response to it, is the subject under discussion. Are our Christian responsibilities to be defined and limited by the laws on vicarious liability?

In Peter Ball’s case, Lord Carey and the CPS were unclear on the criminality of what had occurred. Ball probably did not commit offences after Carey knew, but Smyth almost certainly did – in Africa, if the investigation into the Zambezi Trust is reliable. Those who received the initial Ruston Report for the Iwerne Trustees, and who covered up what it disclosed, were accordingly worse than Carey in the consequences of their neglect, and, moreover, they continued in positions of responsibility and respectable esteem within the church long after.

Peter Ball actually did lose public face, but John Smyth did not until Channel 4 News picked up the story. The chronic delay was thanks to the Establishment protection Smyth received for decades. This, to my mind, makes it worse than Ball.

The clinching argument for Anglican shared ownership of the scandal is, of course, that Archbishop Justin Welby has issued an unequivocal apology for the role which the Church of England played in this deplorable affair. He stated that the church had “failed terribly”. I agree. We are accordingly neither wrong nor mischief-making to bring some analysis to bear as the story continues to unfold: it challenges us especially now, as the church continues to take steps to put its house in order – which, to its credit, it is gradually doing. We need to be honest and thorough, and this will mean facing some difficult truths.

Lest readers think I’m engaged in irresponsible speculation about an Establishment cover up, consider this paragraph drawn from the book ‘The Road to Winchester’, published in 1989 by the former Headmaster of Winchester School, John Thorn. It is to be found at para. 19 of the Zambezi Trust report, referred to above. Thorn writes:

I was told the extraordinary news that the neighbouring Barrister had gained such personal control over a few of the senior boys in the group and had kept it after they left the school… The world of Conservative Evangelicalism was rent in twain. Absurd and baseless rumours circulated but he was an unhinged tyrant, the embodiment of Satan. He must be banished. And quietly and efficiently he was. He left the Winchester Diocese and then the United Kingdom. He departed for Africa with his family, and by me has not been heard of since. The Christian Forum was shattered.

No doubt it was, but not as shattered as the lives of Smyth’s victims – British at the time; African in the future, as this ‘embodiment of Satan’ was exported from England’s green and pleasant land to the oubliette of Africa to preserve a sectional reputation within Anglicanism. And this was not the last occasion it happened.

The Ruston Report resurfaced in or around 2013 within the Titus Trust, the successor organisation to the Iwerne Trust, and has attracted much comment over subsequent years. It resulted in ‘Operation Cubic’ by Hampshire Police, but Smyth has remained in southern Africa where he continues to evade justice, precisely as his erstwhile colleagues intended.

The extent of knowledge within the wider Church of England was addressed by the Daily Telegraph, which reported that the allegations against John Smyth had a widespread currency yet yielded little public action or condemnation from those who knew. Others not adversely implicated in this dishonourable story have added to our understanding. They include an anonymous victim, legal practice Burt Boulden Kemp, the Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser, Anne Atkins, Richard Bartholomew, and even the New York Times. Those who wish to pursue even greater detail, including the US dimension, may read further HERE.

Whereas the likes of Lord Carey may have been duped and manipulated, these Iwerne Trustees, friends and associates of Smyth had received a report detailing the severity of the abuse which stated unambiguously that criminal offences had been committed. The Church of England needs to grapple with this in the context of coming to terms with the IICSA revelations, because in many ways our deficiencies are even more starkly set out. The Ruston Report found:

The whole thing displays frightening blindness in the operators who were blind to scripture, to sense, to propriety, to possible consequences, for gospel work, for men’s welfare, to church history, to the very heart of the gospel, and to the participants who could voluntarily submit to such treatment as God’s appointed way of blessing.

That last sentence effectively blames the victims.

What is wholly absent is the question: ‘How quickly can we place these matters before the prosecution authorities to put a stop to such exploitative brutality?’ Instead, Smyth was allowed to leave the country, exporting the ‘benefits’ of his ‘spiritual discipline’ to southern Africa, where unsuspecting churches accepted him, and many more victims suffered at his hands. Further, when he was short of funds, the Daily Telegraph reports that a wealthy Establishment figure, Jamie Colman, helped Smyth in a manner reminiscent of post-war Germans supporting their own pariahs on the run.

Outrageously, it has largely fallen to victims to bring this story to public attention: institutional omertà had descended among those who held, and some who continue to hold office in churches and public schools. Frequent visitors to this blog will have noted that Bishop George Bell remains under “a significant cloud” post the Carlile Report, but the reputations of those who chose inaction and cover-up after receiving the Ruston Report remain untainted.

If IICSA will not examine this dreadful saga, it seems to us that the Church of England needs to if it is to address the direct and indirect toxic legacy of John Smyth. We need not replicate IICSA, but a truth and reconciliation process in which recollections, understandings and regrets are honestly and openly shared would be greatly appreciated by the victims.

Shortly before Peter Ball’s victim Neil Todd committed suicide because the church failed to take his disclosures seriously, he wrote: “I am not a vindictive person. I only wish for an acknowledgement that my experience was a reality and that the Church of England take responsibility for their inaction.”

Many of Smyth’s British victims have a similarly modest aspiration: they are looking primarily to be taken seriously; for justice and for closure rather than compensation, though some here and abroad may need support.

I cannot help thinking that we cannot close our discussions of abuse based on IICSA alone. Surely our church leaders need urgently to bring forward proposals to address our culpability and responsibility for the toxic legacy of the Iwerne Trust, and to offer significant engagement with the victims together with the respect and compassion which has so long been subsumed to institutional denial and obfuscation.

I appreciate that this will all be very hard reading for some of my Conservative Evangelical friends. I can assure them that telling the story is no part of an overall slur or agenda against them. Not only do I respect their views, but my overall objective to improve Church of England safeguarding and victim support through transparency and accountability has been fully supported by many within their number, and indeed across all wings of the church represented in the General Synod. There was bad practice among the traditional Catholic wing of the church with Peter Ball, and doubtless there will be scandals elsewhere. Child-abuse is no respecter of churchmanship.