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Scripture Union criticised for silence about John Smyth

26 March 2021


The then national director of Scripture Union, the Revd Tim Hastie-Smith, beside the Queen during the Scripture Union 150th anniversary service in St Mary’s, Islington, in December 2017

The then national director of Scripture Union, the Revd Tim Hastie-Smith, beside the Queen during the Scripture Union 150th anniversary service in St ...

THE Scripture Union has been criticised by an independent review for its links with the Iwerne camps, where students from leading public schools are said to have been groomed for sexual abuse (News, 26 March).

Although the Scripture Union (SU) did not run the camps organised by a sister Evangelical charity the Iwerne Trust, it employed three of the staff at Iwerne, and supported its operations. During the 1970s and ’80s, the camp leader, John Smyth QC, who was also an SU trustee, befriended youths and invited them to his home, where he persuaded them to strip and beat them violently in his garden shed.

The review by Gill Camina, a safeguarding and governance consultant, quotes a former SU national director, the Revd Tim Hastie-Smith, who admits that he was either “grotesquely insensitive” or “extraordinarily incurious” about reports of the abuse.

Ms Camina singles out the SU’s former general director Alan Martin for a “critical error of judgement” in not challenging the Trust over the reports, and failing to report the concerns to the SU trustees or the police. There was a lack of clarity over lines of accountability for safeguarding, she says, and a failure to monitor implementation of operational practices within the camps.

The SU’s failure to sever its links with the Trust when the abuse was reported resulted in its being associated with camps where “perpetrators with poor intent” could “access victims, to continue to harm children and young adults without effective challenge, and to operate without personal consequence”.

There was also a failure to prioritise the safeguarding and protection of young people above the interests of powerful individuals and organisational considerations.

The SU’s response since knowledge of the abuse became more widely known had been “positive and appropriate”, Ms Camina said. “Assurance can be given that Scripture Union’s current practice is compliant with statutory guidance and requirements.” But the report recommends improvements, including higher safeguarding expertise, and learning and training.

The Scripture Union has declined to publish the full review, instead releasing an executive summary. In a foreword, it says that it remains “deeply saddened by the accounts of abuse suffered by the victims. That such acts were carried out by an individual associated with Scripture Union is a matter of profound and sincere regret for us.

“We are very much aware of the pain caused by these events and deeply regret the additional hurt and prolonged trauma caused by historic failings in the handling of the allegations and knowledge of the abuse.

“We recognise that this has extended the suffering of victims and their families and are very sorry for the ways that SU’s handling of the case contributed to this.

“We are aware that some readers will be disappointed that we won’t be publishing the full report. The Executive Summary, which has been both produced and signed off by our independent Reviewer, is a substantial document that presents the material findings and recommendations of the review that relate to Scripture Union.”

The report paints a picture of the SU as deferential to the elitist “inner circle” that ran the Iwerne Trust, rarely challenging its activities, even if suspicions were aroused.

It says that the leaders of Iwerne’s camps and schools work were part of “a tight circle of closely-aligned individuals” who “sought to operate completely outside of SU control. . . Iwerne operated like an independent franchise, and these individuals were answerable only to their own trustees and key leaders.

“There is recurrent evidence that the Iwerne approach fell outside SU endorsed practices and caused expressed discomfort. Despite this, archived records indicate that, in the face of forceful and dismissive responses to reasonable questioning or challenge from the highly educated and powerfully confident Iwerne staff (who argued that their unique target audience justified this difference), SU staff deferred or resorted to the path of least resistance by delegating leadership.

“Where there is evidence that when SU leadership raised challenges, external scrutiny was rigorously rejected by Iwerne officers and their forceful responses repeatedly led to a ‘let them get on with it’ approach, despite issues of SU accountability. SU could have considered terminating the relationship with Iwerne but there is no evidence that it did so. It thus accepted this unsatisfactory position.

“A recurring theme in this review is the way in which one person’s judgement (or that of a group of powerful individuals) is considered better by virtue of their background, status and affiliations and the views of others are dismissed and discredited in a way which alienates victims, other professionals and parents.

“The course of action recommended and taken by Iwerne Trust appears to have made those outside of the Iwerne inner circles negate their own views and assessment. It is unclear whether this deference was related to an entrenched respect and reverence for the authority of the church, as there are other factors identified recurrently which inhibit challenge and which potentially may have undermined maintenance of a victim focus, including social class and status.

“The Evangelical Anglican church leadership in England and Wales was, and continues to be, demonstrably dominated by wealthy, socially élite, highly educated white males.

“The individuals who received full disclosure of Smyth’s abuse have all been described by victims as having ‘huge social polish’ which made them very convincing, dominant and persuasive.

“SU was not viewed as ‘sound enough’ by the Iwerne network, as it was seen to be too liberal and not conservative enough in its handling of scripture. As such, Iwerne schools work was seen as superior in its calling, and in operation it was ‘not beholden to Scripture Union’. Iwerne appointed its own staff from within its officer base and SU then approved the appointments, reportedly with no participation in the appointment process.

“This means that SU held overall responsibility with no level of involvement or formal acknowledgement by Iwerne. In retrospect this should never have been allowed but, at the time that this occurred, very minimal scrutiny of volunteer recruitment was a universal issue within the children’s workforce.”

The report continues: “Victims stated that they felt there was a level of ‘wilful ignorance’ demonstrated by the wider Evangelical community and that ‘seemingly comprehensive accounts were actually studies in obfuscation.’”

Ms Camina describes Smyth as a “charismatic and prominent barrister and Christian leader”, but identifies his actions as “unbelievably brutal, extreme and criminal”. He was eventually persuaded to leave Britain, and moved to Zimbabwe, where he established camps similar to Iwerne’s and continued to abuse young males. He died in 2018 (News, 17 August 2018).

The review says that it it is “implausible that no senior SU staff were aware of the concerns surrounding Smyth’s continued abuse of boys in Africa”.

Mr Hastie-Smith made a file note in October 2014: “Apparently, the incident is ‘well known’ and involves a number of high profile individuals. . . It is hard to see how this incident has remained ‘secret’ for so long.”

At the time of his death, Smyth, who had chaired the Iwerne Trust, was wanted for questioning by Hampshire Police over abuse claims concerning boys at Winchester College during the 1970s and ’80s.

Three survivors of the Iwerne scandal — Graham Munro (not his real name), Mark Stibbe, and Andy Morse — attacked the SU’s decision not to publish the full review. They said on Thursday: “We have written individual messages to the trustees explaining the mental trauma that withholding information would cause, but this has not opened up any discussion, merely an impersonal email response confirming the choices that they have made.

“We believe that the failures in Scripture Union’s past are being mirrored by failures in the present. Decisions are being made on our behalf without consultation. Forty years after we were abused, the trustees of Scripture Union are still keeping secrets. This inflicts further damage upon us.”

Mr Munro added: “The NST statement says that they will look at all areas of concern, yet nine years after I disclosed, and four years after the story broke, not one person has yet been held to account. After a lifetime of trauma, Scripture Union have offered victims six sessions of counselling, as long as it is ‘at a reasonable rate’. This is derisory.

“One of the revelations from the SU report is that Bishop Paul Butler, at the time President of Scripture Union and Lead Bishop for Safeguarding, was told in 2015, yet appears to have done nothing, and Smyth was not stopped until the first media report.”

The review says that SU records indicate that Mr Hastie-Smith informed the board that he had spoken directly with Bishop Butler about the matter in May 2015. “Bishop Paul was reportedly advocating an inquiry,” Mr Munro said. “There is no SU record of this meeting, or detail about the conversation between these individuals, but it took place at a time when it is now clear that the Revd Hastie-Smith knew the identity of the perpetrator.”

The full SU report will be passed to the parallel inquiries by Winchester College and the Church of England.

The Church’s lead safeguarding bishop, the Bishop of Huddersfield, the Rt Revd Jonathan Gibbs, said in a statement that the findings would “undoubtedly have a serious effect on the wellbeing of survivors and victims, particularly of John Smyth and Jonathan Fletcher.

“I would like to say personally that we apologise for these appalling behaviours and acts of abuse, recognising that the effects of abuse are lifelong.  We are also committed to responding to and acting on the wider issues raised about cultures and behaviours which enabled the abuse to go unchallenged for so long.”

He continued: “As a Church we must learn from these reviews both at a parish and diocesan level and nationally, and the National Safeguarding Team, NST, will be studying both in detail as well as continuing to work together with Southwark Diocese on the Fletcher case. Any information from the SU review will be passed on to our independent national review into John Smyth being led by Keith Makin it is expected to complete later in the year and the report will be published in full.

“The NST will now look at all issues of concern in both of these reviews, particularly where there were failures to act appropriately on information received.”

On Friday, a spokesman for the Bishop of Durham reiterated the C of E statement, and said that “Bishop Paul has confirmed that he will talk with the CofE Reviewer, as would be correct in the situation.”

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