*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Pilavachi investigation snowballs as new allegations come to light

04 May 2023

Soul Survivor

Canon Mike Pilavachi addressing a Soul Survivor event in 2019

Canon Mike Pilavachi addressing a Soul Survivor event in 2019

FURTHER allegations about Canon Mike Pilavachi, Associate Pastor of Soul Survivor, Watford, have been reported, including accounts of full-body massages and wrestling matches. Last Friday, Soul Survivor announced that the safeguarding concerns being investigated were no longer limited to “non-recent” incidents.

Last month, Soul Survivor, a church in the diocese of St Albans, announced that Canon Pilavachi had agreed “to step back from all ministry” while concerns were investigated (News, 6 April). On Monday, The Daily Telegraph published a number of accounts from alleged victims and former Soul Survivor staff members.

The newspaper reports that the stories disclosed have “similar patterns”. Alleged victims claim that, “as young men, they were invited to their vicar’s house and after a normal chat they would end up wrestling on the floor. They were often half his size as well as half his age.” A number also claim that they were encouraged to receive “full-body oil massages in their underwear while being straddled by Canon Pilavachi in his bedroom”. Wrestling matches could last as long as 20 minutes and sometimes took place in the church, it is alleged.

One man told the newspaper: “To be honest I was never comfortable with the wrestles, but thought it must be okay because it was normalised by other role models who wrestled with Mike. Mike was a lot bigger and stronger than me so he would always win, which he would show by pinning me down and straddling me. The whole thing tended to go on for quite a long time and I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

He said that Canon Pilavachi had then asked him whether he “fancied a massage”.

“I told myself that it was Mike, so of course it was fine and I agreed. We went up to his bedroom where he invited me to strip down to whatever felt comfortable, but suggested my underwear. I’d ended up lying on his bed in my boxers, receiving a full body massage with oils under dim lighting, which I simply couldn’t enjoy. I was 18 or 19 at the time and Mike was in his 40s.”

He added: “I shudder slightly thinking about it now, but I’d never question anything about Mike at the time — he was an idol of mine. Who was I to question him? I was like putty in his hands, really.”

The man claims that shortly after this he was “dropped” by Canon Pilavachi: “I went from being the golden boy to the black sheep.” He eventually left the church.

Soul Survivor, a church set up specifically to reach young people, was planted from St Andrew’s, Chorleywood, in 1993. St Andrew’s was led by the Rt Revd David Pytches, a former Bishop of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Canon Pilavachi was its youth worker. St Andrew’s launched the New Wine festival in 1989 and in 1993 Canon Pilavachi started the annual Soul Survivor youth festival, which ran until 2019 and was attended by more than 30,000 people a year at its peak (Features, 13 September 2019).

Under the current Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, efforts were made to formalise Soul Survivor’s relationship with the diocese. In 2012, Canon Pilavachi was ordained, followed a year later by the Revd Andy Croft, senior pastor at Soul Survivor. In 2014, Soul Survivor was granted a Bishop’s Mission Order.

The Telegraph reports that all of those with whom it has spoken claimed that “senior figures at Soul Survivor knew of the allegations of psychological abuse, bullying, wrestling and massages at the time”. One former staff member said that she had become aware of concerns around late 2003 or early 2004, because someone had received a massage and was talking openly about it. Canon Pilavachi had also been “spoken to about needing to make the effort to have more adult relationships”, she said.

A former “unofficial intern” described “a constant revolving door of young men” who would stay in Watford for periods of time ranging from a few weeks to a couple of years to “sort of be mentored or trained by Mike”. The Telegraph reports that the young men had “some consistent traits. Often they would come from a broken home, or had a traumatic childhood.” Canon Pilavachi sometimes paid for them to be massaged at parlours, it is alleged.

Last Friday, a statement from Soul Survivor said that the words “non-recent” had been removed from earlier statements, “as we were today informed by the independent team conducting the investigation that allegations about recent matters have come to light. Whilst it does not appear these recent allegations include physical contact they are no less significant because of that.”

The church’s first statement, published by its trustees jointly with the Church of England national safeguarding team and the diocese of St Albans, said that safeguarding concerns related to Canon Pilavachi had been reported to the national Church and that an investigation was being carried out by the National Safeguarding Team and the diocese of St Albans. It stressed “that the police are not involved; this is not a criminal investigation and Mike has not been suspended. It is also not currently a clergy disciplinary matter.”

Last Sunday, Mr Croft read out another statement: “We want you to know that we are especially aware of how much those who have come forward have been affected and of how much they are suffering, as are all who are directly involved in this investigation. I want to say, on behalf of the leadership of the church, how much this grieves us.

“I also want to acknowledge that for our church family, this is painful. The trustees and the staff of the church have been cooperating fully and completely with this investigation and will continue to do so. We strongly encourage you that, if you know anything that you think might be relevant, to share it with the national safeguarding team. . .

“We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, though we can say that more recent allegations have come to light. We want to underline our commitment to excellence in our present safeguarding practice and culture. We’ll continue to do all that we can to meet the high standards that we are aiming for, and to ensure that Soul Survivor is a safe place for all.”

As a teenager, Mr Croft was an intern for Canon Pilavachi. He is the son of the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft.

Since the Telegraph’s report on Monday, a number of Evangelical leaders have commented on the allegations and shared details of how to report safeguarding concerns. Gavin Calver, the chief executive of the Evangelical Alliance, wrote on Twitter that he was “shocked and saddened . . . For all those affected by pain and trauma caused by those in whom we put our trust, I’m praying for peace and healing.”

Matt Redman, a Christian musician whose career began at Soul Survivor, where he led worship as a teenager, also put a statement online, saying that he was “deeply impacted. . . Having spent some of my formative years in that environment, I felt it was important to acknowledge these news stories. But most of all I wanted to commend those who are hurting and have so courageously stepped forward.” He shared contact details for reporting safeguarding concerns, noting: “While there’s an ongoing investigation I cannot comment on my own experience.”

A similar message was shared online on Wednesday by the Revd Tim Hughes, Priest-in-Charge of St Luke’s, Birmingham, a church in the HTB network known as Gas Street, and the Revd Pete Hughes, pioneer minister at King’s Cross, known as KXC. Before his ordination, Tim Hughes was director of worship at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and before this, he had succeeded Mr Redman as the worship leader at Soul Survivor.

The Hughes’ statement read: “As brothers who have been deeply shaped by Soul Survivor and worked with Mike Pilavachi over a number of years, we want to acknowledge the tragic stories that are coming into the light, and the bravery of those who have come forward.”

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)