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Safeguarding concerns about Mike Pilavachi substantiated, review concludes

07 September 2023

David C. Cook

Canon Mike Pilavachi and the Revd Andy Croft at a past Soul Survivor festival

Canon Mike Pilavachi and the Revd Andy Croft at a past Soul Survivor festival

THE founder of Soul Survivor, Canon Mike Pilavachi, exhibited “coercive and controlling behaviour” that led to inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths, and the massaging of young male interns, the Church of England’s safeguarding investigation has concluded.

First announced in April (News, 6 April), the investigation was conducted by the National Safeguarding Team (NST) and the diocese of St Albans. It has concluded that the safeguarding concerns reported to it are “substantiated”. They relate to Canon Pilavachi’s conduct in leadership and ministry, both before and after his ordination in 2012, and span 40 years, from his time as a youth leader at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood, to the current day.

The NST has been granted permission to bring a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure against Canon Pilavachi, “relating to a safeguarding concern post ordination”.

A statement published by Church House explains: “The overall substantiated concerns are described as an abuse of power relating to his ministry, and spiritual abuse . . . he used his spiritual authority to control people . . . his coercive and controlling behaviour led to inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths and massaging of young male interns.”

It refers to the definition of spiritual abuse used in the House of Bishops’ Safeguarding Guidance: “a form of emotional and psychological abuse characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context”.

Canon Pilavachi founded Soul Survivor — both an annual summer festival and a church, Soul Survivor, Watford — in 1993 (News, 9 June). Before this, he served as the youth leader at St Andrew’s, Chorleywood, the home of New Wine. At its peak, 30,000 people — mainly teenagers — attended the festival. The church was placed under a Bishop’s Mission Order in 2014, two years after Canon Pilavachi was ordained. For almost 20 years, he led Soul Survivor, Watford, as a lay person.

The church announced that safeguarding concerns about Canon Pilavachi were being investigated by the NST in April, emphasising that he had not been suspended and that it was “not currently a clergy disciplinary matter”.

The specific allegations were not made public, but, in subsequent weeks, newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph published accounts from Soul Survivor staff members and interns (News, 4 May). These included accounts of wrestling matches — some of which took place in the church — and full-body massages.

David Gate, a former Soul Survivor worship leader, described being forbidden to speak directly with the congregation during sung worship, and being ignored for months without warning: “Mike had the power to break your career. . . The only doors that would open for you were the ones that he opened for you to go through. For a teenager, it was emotionally devastating.”

Canon Pilavachi was formally suspended in May (News, 26 May), and resigned as Associate Pastor in July, seeking “forgiveness from any whom I have hurt during the course of my ministry” (News, 14 July). He has also returned his licence to the Bishop of St Albans.

The allegations have included claims that other Soul Survivor leaders were told about Canon Pilavachi’s behaviour as early as 2004 (News, 9 June). Matt Redman, a celebrated songwriter who began leading worship at Soul Survivor when he was 20, published a statement online confirming that he had spoken to the NST investigation and that, with others, he had previously come forward “at the time of being mistreated” but had been “ignored, patronised or gaslit by those in leadership” (News, 13 July).

In June, Soul Survivor announced that it had suspended its senior pastor, the Revd Andy Croft, and its assistant pastor, Ali Martin, in relation to “concerns over the handling of allegations” (News, 9 June).

On Wednesday afternoon, a statement from the church said that Mr Croft remained suspended, “while the Church of England process, as outlined in the House of Bishops guidance, runs its course”. Safeguarding concerns about Mrs Martin had not been substantiated, and her suspension had been lifted.

The “vast majority of the safeguarding concerns” raised in the investigation “related to Mike Pilavachi and his abuse of power in ministry”, the statement from Church House said. “Further investigations about concerns raised relating to a former senior Church of England leader linked with Soul Survivor Festivals are ongoing.”

Soul Survivor announced in its statement that it had commissioned Fiona Scolding KC “to lead a full and independent review. The terms of reference of the investigation will be published in the coming weeks and the report of Ms Scolding’s review will be published in full. The Trustees are committed to implementing her recommendations.”

Ms Scolding was lead counsel to three different investigations by the Independent Inquiry for Child Sexual Abuse, relating to the Church of England and Church in Wales, schools in England and Wales, and other religious institutions (News, 9 March 2018). She told the Inquiry in 2018 that, among the problems dogging the Church of England, was a “culture of amateurism” and an inability to believe that people who appeared to be good “could be capable of great harm towards children and young people” (News, 9 March 2018).

The Soul Survivor statement said: “We are grateful to all those who have contributed to this process, who by coming forward have brought Mike’s abusive behaviour into the light. We are deeply sorry to all those people who have been victims of spiritual, emotional and psychological abuse, physical wrestling and massage under Mike’s leadership.

“There has been a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour. We are saddened that these behaviours happened in a context that should have provided safety and spiritual support. We are committed to learning lessons from what has happened and to put in place further practices and procedures that will seek to ensure this kind of behaviour does not happen in the future.”

The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said: “This has been a painful process for everyone involved, going back over years. I am sorry on behalf of the Church for the hurt caused and would like to acknowledge the courage of those who came forward to share their lived experience. I am aware there will be further contact with individuals about a more personalised response.”

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