Three moments of failure: sadistic barrister’s beatings could have been prevented, says author

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Image credit: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd

By Rosie Dawson

Dozens of boys could have been spared the abuse they received from the barrister John Smyth if Christian leaders had acted earlier on information they held about his activities, the author Andrew Graystone has told a Religion Media Centre briefing.

Graystone’s book, Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and the Cult of Iwerne Camps, tells the story of how Smyth, a Queen’s Counsel, used the military-style Christian camps to recruit public schoolboys for sadistic beatings during the late 1970s and early 1980s. The beatings took place in his garden shed at his home in Winchester and the boys, Graystone says, were all “good-looking”.

When it appeared that Smyth’s abuse might come to light, Graystone says “the men in grey suits” told Smyth he had to leave the country, so in 1985 he moved to Zimbabwe, and then South Africa, where he went on to abuse many more boys and was still grooming them for abuse in Cape Town at the time of his death in 2018.

Graystone identified three particular moments when Smyth’s abuse could have been stopped. The first was in 1982 when the Rev Mark Ruston, vicar of the Round Church in Cambridge, alerted the Iwerne trustees to it. “The scale and severity of the practice was horrific,” the report read. Ruston had interviewed 16 of Smyth’s victims and was in no doubt that criminal offences were being committed. Ruston died in 1990.

A further opportunity to stop Smyth came in Zimbabwe in 1993 after solicitor David Coltart was approached by parents and pastors concerned about Smyth’s behaviour. He wrote a detailed report on Smyth’s abuse which was sent to Zimbabwean head teachers, church leaders and others, including an Anglican bishop.

Finally, Graystone told the briefing, a survivor of Smyth’s abuse reached out for help within the Iwerne network in 2012. His complaint was eventually handed on to the Diocese of Ely. A letter was sent to the Cape Town archdiocese, where Smyth was living, with a copy landing on Archbishop Justin Welby’s desk in August 2013. An accompanying note from his chaplain said: “Possible you even know this chap through Iwerne. Tragic tale.”

Archbishop Welby may not have known the victim, but he did know Smyth. He had attended the Iwerne camps and became an officer at one of them. Graystone claims that while Welby was working in the oil industry in Paris in 1982, Welby was made aware that Smyth had fallen under a cloud and was not to be trusted.

Graystone has spent six years researching Smyth’s abuse. He is critical of the archbishop’s response in a Channel 4 News broadcast in 2017, which — with Graystone ‘s help — brought Smyth’s abuse to public attention.

He says the moment he became most angry was in 2019 when Archbishop Welby was interviewed by Cathy Newman for Channel 4 News, when he said several things that Graystone disputes: “I’m not saying that he was lying. He may have been badly briefed … But I was absolutely seething.”

“Amongst many other things, he said John Smyth wasn’t an Anglican. Well, he was an Anglican lay reader, in England, and in South Africa. He attended Anglican churches, and some other churches”.

 Graystone is not convinced by arguments that the archbishop was not required to act personally in 2013 because the disclosure had been made to another bishop, the Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway.

“If the question is, ‘Did Justin Welby do everything that he was required to do? By law and practice?’ The answer may be yes. If the question is, ‘Could he or should he have done more?’ The answer is certainly yes.”

Graystone says it is appropriate to label the Iwerne movement as a cult, with people believing they had found the one path to truth, totally committed, sharing codes of language and dress with some degree of coercion which made it difficult to leave.

The Iwerne Trust handed over the running of the camps to a new charity, the Titus Trust, in 1997. Several of Iwerne trustees became trustees of the new organisation. It issued a statement last week acknowledging that it had made mistakes in relation to Smyth but denying that there had been a cover-up.

The day after Smyth’s death, the Church of England announced an independent review under Keith Makin, a former director of social services appointed by the church’s National Safeguarding Team, into the way it handled the revelations about his abuse. It has been subject to delays, but is now expected to report in the middle of 2022.

Graystone says survivors of Smyth “want honesty, from the church and from the Titus Trust. They want apologies [from] those who have covered up or failed to deal with this, from the wider Christian community.”

Graystone writes in his book that he regards Smyth’s son, PJ, as his first victim. He told the briefing that PJ “was treated physically in the same way that the other victims were treated, but earlier, from the age of eight onwards. He was heavily groomed and therefore deeply conflicted and confused about what was going on. PJ, as a teenager, thought that this was the way things were meant to be, that the way his father was treating him was the way that good fathers treated their children.”

Meanwhile questions will continue to be asked about how the culture and theology of the Iwerne network, which remains an influential force within the Church of England, was so easily manipulated by Smyth to serve his ends.

Graystone added: “I would just like to see a whole lot more really honest soul-searching about ways in which Christian institutions do damage while they’re trying to do good, ways in which the light that they want to shed actually casts shadows. In those shadows, terrible things can happen.”

Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and the Cult of Iwerne Camps, by Andrew Graystone, is published by Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd

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