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John Smyth QC, 77, accused of shed beatings, dies in Cape Town

13 August 2018


John Smyth QC

John Smyth QC

THE former Iwerne Trust chairman John Smyth QC, who had been accused of administering brutal beatings in his garden shed to boys whom he had befriended at camps run by the Trust in the 1970s, has died before he could be questioned by police, arrested, or tried.

Smyth suffered a heart attack at his home in Cape Town, South Africa, on Saturday. He was 77. In a statement to the BBC, his family asked to be “left alone” to mourn in private.

The Iwerne Trust, now part of the Titus Trust, ran holiday camps for boys at English public schools in the 1970s. A six-month Channel 4 News investigation, broadcast in February of last year, found that both the Iwerne Trust and Winchester College had learned of allegations of abuse by Smyth in the 1980s, but had failed to report them to the police (News, 10 February 2017).

One man told the programme that he and other boys had been beaten so severely by Smyth that they had to wear nappies to staunch the bleeding.

Channel 4 also reported that a “senior figure” in the Trust wrote to Smyth to tell him him to leave the country. Smyth moved to Zimbabwe, where he continued to run holiday camps for Zambezi Ministries; and then to South Africa.

Smyth was reportedly wanted for questioning by the Crown Prosecution Service when he died. Hampshire Police launched an investigation into the case in March last year.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who is the Church of England’s lead bishop for safeguarding, said in a statement on Saturday that the reports of Smyth’s death would be “very difficult” for survivors, who had “bravely come forward to share their experiences of his harrowing treatment, and all those who suffered, knowing that the police investigation could not now be completed.

“The violent abuse of young men linked with the Iwerne Trust between 1978-82 should never have happened and we utterly condemn this behaviour and abuse of power and trust. It is important now that all those organisations linked with this case work together to look at a ‘lessons learnt’ review, whilst continuing to offer both formal and informal support to those who have come forward as survivors.”

More than 80 survivors have come forward about Smyth. They include the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Revd Andrew Watson. A spokesman for the diocese said on Monday that the Bishop was away and, therefore, unavailable to comment, but that the diocese “supported the sentiments” of the C of E statement.

Bishop Watson posted on Twitter on Sunday: “Have just heard of the death of John Smyth yesterday. I’ve declined an offer of a media interview, as it’ll take time to process it all. My prayers though are with John’s family and his victims.”

Survivors of abuse and campaigners have expressed dismay at the news that Smyth died before he could be brought to justice.

Andrew Morse, who is 57, and says that he was beaten by Smyth from the ages of 16 to 21, reported this to senior church figures in 2013 (News, 13 April 2017). He had met Smyth when he was 14, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday. “My abuse ended when I tried to take my life in February 1982, to escape a special 21st beating he was planning to give me.”

He had “mixed feelings” about Smyth’s death before either he or Smyth had been questioned by Hampshire Police for their investigation. “I am disappointed that the legal process hasn’t completed. I think, for my own personal cycle of abuse, that would have been helpful.

“On the other hand, and a great advantage, is that myself, but particularly my family and my friends, are now not going to have to go through an extended process before, during, and after a trial. I can see already that that has made my family happy.”

Mr Morse said that he and other survivors were concerned about the position of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, who was a dormitory officer at the Iwerne camp in the late 1970s, when Smyth was one of its leaders.

A statement from Lambeth Palace last year said that the Archbishop had worked with Smyth, but that no one had discussed the allegations with him. The Archbishop later said: “I was completely unaware of any abuse. I never heard anything at all at any point. I never had the slightest suspicion that there was anything going on.”

Mr Morse told Today that Archbishop Welby had mentored one of the victims. “Our concern about the Church is that Justin Welby himself, who was at the camps with us, and who actually mentored the Smyth victim who reported the abuse to [Holy Sepulchre, Cambridge] in 2012 — Justin Welby admits he became aware of the abuse in 2013 — that somehow the four different police forces I was told were contacted, none of them were given proper information.”

He called for an independent investigation into the Church’s handling of the case.

Andrew Graystone, a campaigner for survivors in the case, tweeted: “I’m deeply sorry for his family and victims. The complacency of the Church of England, Hampshire Police, and Titus Trust means that there will be no earthly justice and no answers to their questions.”

He later told Today that survivors were “extremely angry” about the lack of justice. “People in the Church and the Iwerne movement have known about John Smyth’s abuse since 1982. . . In all those years, nothing was done to stop him, nothing was done to help the victims.

“The Church could have stopped him at any time since 2013. . . It is as if the Church just reaches for the shelf, tosses out another apology, and carries on.”

The Titus Trust released a statement on Monday, saying that it had not been informed of the allegations until 2014. “It is deeply regrettable that John Smyth’s death has robbed his victims of the opportunity to see justice done,” it read. 

“Since 2014, when the board of the Titus Trust was informed of the allegations, we have done all we can to ensure the matter is properly investigated by the relevant authorities. We sympathise deeply with Smyth’s victims and continue to pray that they find healing and freedom from the harm that was so unjustly inflicted on them.  Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by the news of John Smyth’s death.”

The statement was heavily criticised by four victims of Smyth, who released a separate statement on Monday night saying that they were “appalled” by the official response of the Trust. The Trust had known about the allegations much earlier than 2014, the victims stated, and had not “done all it could” to investigate the case.

“Since Smyth’s horrific abuses were publicly exposed in February 2017, the Titus Trust has flatly refused to engage with his victims, or even to enquire after our well-being, let alone to offer any form of support or redress.  Their protestation of sympathy is cynical and disingenuous.

“Had the Titus Trust acted on the information that was available to it since its foundation, Smyth’s abuse could have been stopped long ago.  Our hearts go out to the 60 or more children of Zimbabwe and South Africa who suffered at the hands of John Smyth as we did, but needlessly.

“We have no interest in the ‘thoughts and prayers’ of the Titus Trust.  We do not believe they are fit to work with children.”

In a blog post this month, Martin Sewell, a retired child-protection lawyer and a lay representative for Rochester diocese on the General Synod, called for an independent inquiry into the Smyth affair.

“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’.”

Mr Sewell linked to a confidential report commissioned by the Iwerne Trust in 1982 on 22 young men’s allegations against Smyth. Its author, the Revd Mark Ruston, states in the report, written in March 1982, that he had spoken to 18 of them, who variously reported being beaten on their bare skin by Smyth, who used a cane to deliver up to 40 strokes, to punish various “sins”.

“The scale and severity of the practice was horrific,” Mr Ruston wrote. “Five of 13 were in [the camp] for only a short time. Between them they had 12 beatings of about 650 strokes. The other eight received about 14,000 strokes.”

Survivors told Mr Ruston: “I could feel the blood spattering down my legs”; “I was bleeding for three and a half weeks”; and “I fainted sometime after a severe beating.”

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