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John Smyth used Evangelical group to groom Winchester boys, review finds

19 January 2022

Alamy

Winchester College

Winchester College

THE former chairman of the Iwerne Trust, John Smyth QC, gained “unfettered access” to Winchester College from the early 1970s until 1982, which “allowed him to groom boys and created opportunities for abuse”, an independent review concludes.

The review, published on Tuesday, was carried out by Jan Pickles, an independent registered social worker, and Genevieve Woods, a criminal barrister who specialises in safeguarding law. The review was commissioned by the school in 2019, and is separate from two other reviews being carried out: an independent review by Keith Makin, commissioned by the Church of England, and a review by Scripture Union.

The Winchester College review says that Smyth, who died in 2018 (News, 17 August 2018), used his post as chairman of the Iwerne Trust, which ran holiday camps for boys from public schools in the 1970s, “to engage with pupils” at the school, some of whom he went on to beat in his garden shed and at other locations (News, 10 February 2017).

His main route into the school was via the Christian Forum, an Evangelical group that met on Sundays. It was founded in 1972 by the Revd John Woolmer, a maths teacher at Winchester College, who returned to the school after training for ordination.

Smyth had already set up a Christian group for “Wykehamists” who had links to Iwerne camps, at his home in Winchester, in the early 1970s. Mr Woolmer established the Christian Forum, with the consent of the then headmaster, John Thorn, “to bring the secretive group at Smyth’s house into the open”, the review states.

Nevertheless, Mr Woolmer invited Smyth to be a guest speaker at the Forum “once a term”, and Smyth attended between 30 and 40 per cent of its meetings. The review says that one of its witnesses, a former pupil, “remembered thinking it was odd that he was just sitting in the library listening at Christian Forum meetings as he was not a member of Winchester College staff”.

Smyth took a lead in recruiting pupils to the Christian Forum, with the help of a maths teacher at the school, Peter Krakenberger. Smyth would hold one-to-one meetings with pupils, some of which took place in the bedroom of Mr Krakenberger’s flat on school grounds.

Smyth would also invite some pupils from the Christian Forum to his home on Sundays, “ostensibly to share lunch with his family”. One of the victims to whom the reviewers spoke “said that he thought Smyth used his family as a cover for his abuse”. Other victims and witnesses spoke of how Smyth would encourage nude bathing in the family pool, and nakedness during showers after sailing trips.

One of the victims who gave evidence to the review spoke of how he welcomed the invitation to Sunday lunch with Smyth because he received no pastoral care at the school, which was “a place of immense emotional deprivation and brutality”.

Smyth warned boys not to confide in their housemasters, whom he considered not to be “sound”, the review says.

After some housemasters expressed concerns about Smyth’s behaviour towards pupils, in 1977, Mr Thorn recruited the Revd Mark Ashton, a conservative Evangelical, to join the school’s chaplaincy team, to “assist in managing the tensions arising from the Christian Forum”.

Nevertheless, Smyth’s access to the school, and his influence on some pupils, grew. “As his contact with the school and the Christian Forum increased, Smyth was able to build a trusting relationship with the boys who attended the Christian Forum in plain sight of the College. Meetings with Smyth took place in the College, at the house of Peter Krakenberger, near the school, and at his family home. Contact took place midweek and also on weekends.”

Smyth used his frequent meetings with pupils to “build intense relationships . . . and to have conversations with them about sexual activities”. This included “discussion and disclosure of masturbation and impure thoughts so that it became normal conversation within that special group”. One victim told the reviewers “that he felt compelled to tell Smyth everything he asked of him and he believed that he used techniques of cross-examination on the boys”.

Smyth’s grooming of the pupils escalated into physical beatings, which were given theological rationale by Smyth. “Smyth told the boys that they had been chosen by God to do great things and that he had been sent by God to be his ‘spiritual father’ on Earth,” the review says. “As their spiritual father, he said he had the right and duty to discipline ‘his sons’.

“He quoted the proverb, ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him diligently.’ He told the boys that they could show gratitude to Jesus by nailing their sins to the cross. This was the rationale he used for the infliction of physical abuse.”

One victim told the review that he was first beaten by Smyth at the age of 17, in the autumn of 1978, with six strokes using a gym shoe. “The beatings progressed to the use of a cane. On one occasion, he was subjected to a beating of 800 strokes, which lasted all day.”

Some aspects of Smyth’s abuse were “sexual in nature”, although no victims disclosed to the reviewers that they were raped.

Victims spoke of the way that Smyth used scriptural passages to break down their resistance. “In the context of an Evangelical group which adhered to the principle of biblical infallibility, this use of scripture meant that some victims felt unable to question his demands.” The review compares his approach with the techniques of radicalisation or a cult.

The reviewers say that they are aware of 13 former pupils of the school who were abused by Smyth. “Not all of the abuse involved assault or physical beatings. Some of the victims were subjected to severe emotional and spiritual abuse and inappropriate sexualised behaviour.”

The review says that Smyth was careful to keep his abuse of Winchester pupils secret. “He groomed his victims to believe that they were special and ‘other’, part of an elite group in which outsiders were excluded and seen as lesser. He taught his chosen boys to share information only with him and not with teachers, chaplains or other pupils at Winchester College. . . As a result, the victims kept their suffering secret for many years, not only from their teachers and parents, but from one another.”

Nevertheless, it says, staff at the school were aware that Smyth was spending much time alone with pupils, and knew that his relationships with some were so close that he had even invited them to be godparents to his children. Parents of some pupils had also raised concerns, and “multiple Housemasters” were so suspicious of Smyth that they had banned pupils from visiting his home.

“Some of these concerns may be relatively low-level when considered individually, but if appropriate information sharing processes had been in place among staff members, the College would have been able to recognise a pattern of inappropriate behaviour by Smyth and could have taken action to try to limit his contact with pupils.”

The review states, however, that “there is no evidence that action was taken in response to the concerns about Smyth’s relationship with boys”.

It concludes that “if Smyth had been prosecuted for the offence of assault or assault occasioning actual bodily harm in the 1980s or later on the basis of the evidence shared with the reviewers, there would have been a reasonable prospect of conviction.

“Despite the limitations of academic literature and training for local authorities at the time, the legislative framework of child protection in the early 1980s was sufficiently clear to have had the potential to protect children from such abuse, if it had been invoked.

“A criminal justice response of this kind could have led to formal legal consequences for Smyth, up to and including conviction and imprisonment, but would in any event have raised awareness about the risk which he posed when working with children. If those who were aware of the abuse had made a report to the police, it might have protected other children, including those who subsequently became the victims of abuse by Smyth in Zimbabwe and South Africa.”

The reviewers say that they “have not found evidence that there was a widespread culture of abuse at Winchester College in the 1970s and 1980s”.

Mr Thorn is still alive, but the reviewers were told that he would not be able to respond to their questions “due to concerns related to his health and welfare”. This view was supported by “a formal capacity assessment . . . undertaken by independent medical professionals”. Extracts from the report were, however, sent to “an independent legal representative instructed to act on his behalf”.

It says that Mr Thorn did not challenge the “unrestricted access” to the school which Smyth was able to gain gradually, from the early 1970s until 1982, when abuse was disclosed to Mr Thorn. The review provides text of a handwritten letter that Mr Thorn gave Smyth, in October 1982, which said that Smyth undertook “unequivocally to break completely with those I have implicated in a practice I now accept as misguided and wrong”, and “to receive specialist medical advice at once and to receive treatment if so advised”.

The letter in the school files is unsigned. It is unclear whether Smyth ever signed a copy.

A statement from the Warden and Fellows of Winchester College, issued on Tuesday, said: “We acknowledge the courage and determination of the victims in pursuing the truth about John Smyth: their testimony lies at the heart of this review. The College apologises unreservedly for its part in their terrible experiences.”

Two former pupils who were victims of Smyth expressed appreciation of the College’s unreserved apology. “But, of course, apologising is not the same thing as taking responsibility. For us victims, how the College now demonstrates that it does indeed take its share of responsibility and the extent that it wishes to make amends for the terrible abuse we have suffered will be the true measure of their apology.

“We are encouraged by the College setting up a Compensation Advisory Group to consider support for Smyth’s victims and look forward to working together to find ways to bring further healing and possibly even to find some sort of reconciliation.”

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