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Jonathan Fletcher review describes wider culture of fear

23 March 2021

creative commons

Emmanuel Ridgeway Proprietary Chapel, Wimbledon

Emmanuel Ridgeway Proprietary Chapel, Wimbledon

A CULTURE of fear at Emmanuel Proprietary Chapel, Ridgway, in Wimbledon, and in the wider conservative Evangelical constituency, prevented safeguarding concerns about the Revd Jonathan Fletcher from being reported, a review says. It suggests that the “unhealthy culture” in the church and its networks will not be addressed until leaders stand down.

The 146-page lessons-learnt review, published on Tuesday, was carried out by the independent Christian safeguarding charity Thirtyone:eight, and was commissioned by the south-London proprietary chapel, more often known as Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon (ECW), in 2019, after allegations emerged about Mr Fletcher (News, 5 July 2019). These included allegations of naked beatings and massages, as well as of spiritual abuse.

Mr Fletcher retired in 2012 after 30 years as Minister of ECW. His permission to officiate (PTO) was later removed in 2017, after the diocese of Southwark concluded that “there was a risk of him behaving towards vulnerable adults who may be seeking his spiritual guidance in a manner which may be harmful”.

The review took evidence from 59 members or former members of the congregation at ECW, via interview, written answers to questions, or written submissions; 33 “role-holders or former role-holders”, and 27 alleged victims. Mr Fletcher was asked in writing five times to participate in the review, but did not take up any of the offers, it says.

The participants are not named in the review because of fears of the repercussions of speaking out “on future careers, personal relationships and standing”.

The review says: “It is difficult to articulate in a written report the fear some individuals demonstrated. Some required repeated reassurance about anonymity and the security of the process.” They did not solely fear Mr Fletcher, but also “others of influence in the wider CE [conservative Evangelical] constituency of which ECW is a part”.

Such fear, it says, “can be clearly argued to be linked to the time taken for disclosures to come to light”.

The review reports behaviour that is already in the public domain, such as “coercion and control, [and] bullying”, as well as “naked massages and saunas, forfeits including smacking with a gym shoe, and ice baths”.

It also says that one participant in the review reported “a serious incident of a sexual nature”, which was not previously in the public domain. “One participant reported that JF [Jonathan Fletcher] told him to perform a sex act in front of him and when he did not, JF performed the act instead.” This demonstrated “a gross abuse of power” and “raises a question regarding whether this would be regarded as misconduct in a public office”. The review also notes that Mr Fletcher “has never been charged with or found guilty of any offence”.

The reviewers conclude: “There are significant and ongoing safeguarding concerns related to JF. These include within mentoring relationships or ministerial activities.” While the removal of his PTO means that he “cannot any longer conduct certain aspects of official ministry . . . there is a need for clarity that the significant and ongoing safeguarding concerns relate to all aspects of Christian influence and ministry, including, but not limited to, personal work, pastoral care and mentoring”,

The review says that Mr Fletcher’s charisma and charm were a reason that his behaviour went unreported. But it also considers the wider context in which he ministered.

“There is a clear theme in the evidence that ECW regarded itself as separate from the Diocese and this is, in part, due to its proprietary chapel status, being financially independent of the C of E,” it says. “However, it was also due to theological differences between the Diocese and ECW. The Diocese was seen as ‘liberal’ and therefore also seen with some suspicion. This resulted in a negative lens around safeguarding to a large extent as something imposed by the Diocese.

“The longstanding strained relationship between ECW and the Diocese is reported as a factor in what we deem to be the lack of effective response to the disclosures and other concerns regarding the behaviour of JF and other safeguarding issues that were raised during JF’s incumbency.”

The review also draws attention to Mr Fletcher’s influence in the wider constituency of conservative Evangelicalism, which include Iwerne camps, the Proclamation Trust, ReNew, the Church Society, and GAFCON.

“Being a person of influence in one Church, however significant, provides power but with clear boundaries. Being a deeply influential person within a much broader interconnected network creates much greater power and much less opportunity for individuals to disclose, and a situation in which many many owe their positions to you.” The review quotes one participant as saying: “Officially he was just a minister but in reality, his power was greater than any bishop in the Church of England.”

The review acknowledges that there have been “changes to leadership and governance and accountability structures within ECW since 2012, and many of these are positive”. Nevertheless, it says, “some concerns still remain.

“It is the opinion of the Reviewers that the aspects of unhealthy culture at ECW and more broadly across the affected CE [conservative Evangelical] constituency might only be addressed fully by those having played a key role in the establishment and maintenance of that culture to no longer enjoy the influence they have had to date (i.e. considering their positions and stepping down). It is not for this review to determine the details of how this should take place, but it should be recognised and considered as a necessary part of a demonstrable commitment towards a safer, healthier culture.”

The review also says that the case has highlighted wider issues concerning safeguarding in the Church. Current understandings of safeguarding, it says, “primarily are seen to relate to children, young people and adults ‘at risk of harm’ (often still referred to in faith contexts as vulnerable).

“Where adults do not meet the criteria for being at risk of harm, they can experience damaging behaviours that do not cross into a statutory category of harm, and in this context can render them vulnerable. There is a need for this current void to be addressed. . .

“We also consider that the issue of consent requires further legislative scrutiny in contexts where there is a significant imbalance of power and/or status and/or age, including in a religious context.”

The reviewers also express surprise that Mr Fletcher’s case was not passed to the National Safeguarding Team (NST), given “the widely acknowledged profile and influence JF held, and the media interest in this case”.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the elders and trustees of ECW, say: “We know that abuse that takes place over many decades, involving many victims, is not something that can be blamed on just one individual, and that other failings and aspects of our church culture enabled Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse, which is something the review makes plain. . .

“We apologise unreservedly for all we have got wrong, and publicly commit to change, and seek forgiveness from all those who have been hurt, damaged or affected by our failures.”

The statement acknowledges that “there was no meaningful accountability around Jonathan Fletcher, either internally or externally,” which “meant that people did not feel they could speak out safely, or on the occasions when someone did try to speak out, their voices were not heard”. They had “failed to identify quickly enough the need for a safe and independent body, beyond Emmanuel and the Diocese, for victims to disclose to”.

It goes on to say that “no one in the current leadership team or the vast majority of the church knew of the massages, beatings or sexual behaviours” until they were first disclosed in September 2018, although some knew that Mr Fletcher “took saunas with young men after sport; belittled colleagues in staff meetings; humiliated individuals such as naming and shaming them from the front when they arrived late for church; made demeaning comments about people from different backgrounds; showed favouritism; and created a culture of fear”.

They encourage any victims who have not spoken before to contact Thirtyone:eight or to speak to a safeguarding officer at ECW or the diocese, and say that they will provide “free, independent, therapeutic support” via Thirtyone:eight.

They say that they are “committed to continuous reflection and improvement to address new or surviving blindspots or any continuing unhealthy aspects of our culture”, and have established a small group to oversee the implementation of the review’s recommendations. “No one in this group had any senior leadership role under Jonathan Fletcher.”

Many proprietary chapels existed in the 18th and 19th centuries, built by subscription and maintained by private individuals (originally supported by pew rents, often high), but without parochial rights, although their minister would usually be granted a bishop’s licence. They tended to be found in areas that were fashionable, and have sometimes been centres of strongly defined churchmanship. Emmanuel, Ridgway, is one of a few that are left.

A statement from the diocese of Southwark said that it was “committed to learning lessons from independent safeguarding reviews and in the light of this report will continue to work with Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and the National Safeguarding Team.

“The abuse of power and control by those in positions of trust is unacceptable and we commend those who contributed to this review for their resilience and courage in coming forward to disclose painful experiences. It is of the utmost importance that support is offered to those in need who have been affected by the abusive behaviours detailed in the review. The Diocese has contributed to the review and will study the report findings and recommendations in detail. We will seek to ensure that the learning from the review will be implemented.”

A spokesperson for the NST said on Tuesday:  “The Church is committed to learning lessons from all safeguarding situations and will continue to work together with Southwark diocese on this case. The coercive and controlling behaviours described in the report are appalling and the priority must be to ensure support for those who have been brave enough to come forward.

“The NST has contributed to this review and does note the findings and recommendations which it will study in detail. The Team has developed over recent years and has seen a significant restructure including the commitment to move to independent oversight along with the development of the national casework management system. We fully welcome the learning and changes that will result from this report.”

A statement from the trustees of the Church of England Evangelical Council (CEEC), responding to the publication of the review, said: “This is a time of lament for Anglican evangelicals as we humbly reflect on this report, carefully listen to survivors, and repent of all we need to change. Please join us in praying for the many affected by Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse and for Christlikeness in all those who seek to serve his people.

“A range of resources to help Anglican evangelicals in a time of lament will be added to the CEEC website in the coming weeks. We hope in due course to also add further recommended resources and commentary on cultural changes needed.”

The trustees of the Titus Trust, which ran the Iwerne camps — closed last year (News, 29 May 2020) — for pupils from large boarding schools, said that they were “profoundly shocked and saddened” at the “abuse and pain” that many suffered at the hands of Mr Fletcher.

A statement from the trustees, posted on the Titus Trust’s website on Tuesday, said that Mr Fletcher had not been a staff member or trustee, but “was an influential leader on Iwerne Holidays for many years. It is therefore very distressing to hear how he used this opportunity and influence to develop relationships with young men, some of whom later attended Emmanuel Church, who became subject to awful abuse from him. We are profoundly sorry that he was able to do this and our hearts go out to all his victims.”

The trustees were “mindful of the important issues of culture it [the review] raises, which require both self-reflection and change”. They were willing “to contribute to the co-ordinated provision of support being provided” by Thirtyone:eight.

The full review can be read at www.walkingwith.uk.

Read more on this story in our Comment pages here and here

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