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Barristers leading Pilavachi inquiry appeal for information

09 February 2024

Landmark Chambers

Fiona Scolding KC

Fiona Scolding KC

THE barristers leading an independent review of the Revd Mike Pilavachi’s conduct and the extent to which it was enabled by Soul Survivor have appealed for those with information to come forward.

Last year, the Church of England National Safeguarding Team’s investigation of Mr Pilavachi, the founder and former leader of Soul Survivor, concluded that he had perpetrated “coercive and controlling behaviour” that led to inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths, and the massaging of young male interns (News, 8 September 2023).

Soul Survivor subsequently commissioned Fiona Scolding KC to conduct an independent review of the evidence and to “consider the extent to which the conduct specified in these allegations was, whether tacitly or explicitly, enabled, condoned or exacerbated by the past and present culture and practices of Soul Survivor and/or deficiencies in the governance, policies, practices, arrangements and oversight by the Trustees of Soul Survivor, others in leadership positions within Soul Survivor, and those who had oversight of Soul Survivor in respect of their governance”.

Ms Scolding was lead counsel to three different investigations by the Independent Inquiry for Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), relating to the Church of England and Church in Wales, schools in England and Wales, and other religious institutions (News, 9 March 2018). She is working alongside another barrister, Ben Fullbrook, who acted as junior counsel to IICSA, on the review.

This week, they said that they were “particularly keen to hear from individuals who undertook internships with Mike Pilavachi or who worked directly with him and who have not already contacted us. We realise that it may be difficult for some to share their experiences. However, we are keen to make sure that the review is as thorough as possible and their contributions will greatly assist us with that. Any information which is provided to us will be handled in accordance with our privacy notice and treated in confidence unless we are given permission to share it.”

They are “keen that, if at all possible, people come forward by 15 March”.

Among the purposes of the review, set out in terms of reference available online, is “to understand what was known about any allegations made and/or what steps (if any) were taken, by whom, and when to address concerns raised or allegations made from 1993 to date concerning Mike Pilavachi”.

It will also assess the current safeguarding arrangements and culture at Soul Survivor, “as far as it still demonstrates failures which would allow further safeguarding failures to take place in respect of lack of ministerial oversight and/or challenge and make recommendations to improve any deficiencies identified”.

The review will provide “an opportunity for those who are alleged to have been harmed by their involvement with Mike Pilavachi to have their voices heard and for Mike Pilavachi to have a full and informed opportunity to respond to the allegations”.

The terms of reference set out clearly the perimeters of the review. It will not “determine the merits or outcome of any individual complaints made. The Reviewers cannot determine if events did or did not occur or make any findings of fact as to any individual allegations.”

The terms offer reassurance to those concerned about confidentiality. The reviewers “will not name any complainant or those who make allegations against Mike Pilavachi to him during the course of the review save with their express consent to do so. They will not be named in any final report save where they give their consent to be so named to the Reviewers in writing.”

The reviewers will, it is said, also “take all reasonable steps to prevent identification by way of ‘jigsaw identification’” — a reference to the possibility of piecing together information to identify individuals. Those who wish to submit information anonymously should “explain in writing at the time of submitting information why they wish to submit information anonymously and the Reviewers will consider whether they are able to agree to this or will seek further information to understand why the request has been made”.

All information submitted to the reviewers will be “held confidentially on a server which is secure and independent of Soul Survivor”.

It was reported by The Daily Telegraph last year that more than 100 people had provided information to the NST review. Ms Scolding’s terms of reference state that her team will liaise with the NST and the diocese of St Albans “to seek the consent (on an informed basis) of those who have already provided relevant evidence to the NST and/or and the St Albans Diocese to allow it to be released to the Reviewers”.

Those who do not wish to seek support from the NST or the diocese of St Albans can be referred to the safeguarding organisation 31:8.

There is no timeline for completion of the report. But the terms of reference say that, once it has been completed, “to demonstrate openness and transparency, Soul Survivor will publish the report, subject to any relevant legal considerations.” It goes on to say: “Anyone who is the subject of significant criticism within the report shall be given an opportunity to comment upon such criticism in writing prior to the finalisation of the report. The Reviewers may, but are not compelled to, amend the draft report as a result of any comments or concerns raised.”

The trustees of Soul Survivor have also made a commitment to “publishing a response identifying how any recommendations are being implemented and the timescales for such implementation”.

The terms also say: “If, during the course of this review or arising from its findings and recommendations, there is discovery of criminal activity or further allegations of safeguarding breaches, these will be passed to the police or the Local Authority Designated Officer for Hertfordshire, the Diocesan Safeguarding Advisor and the National Safeguarding Team. Any discoveries that require urgent action, but which do not meet thresholds would be communicated to the Trustees of Soul Survivor Watford for them to action according to their internal procedures.”

Last month, it was announced that Mr Pilavachi had received a written warning as a result of a complaint brought under the Clergy Discipline Measure concerning his “verbal interactions with a vulnerable person” (News, 26 January).

Some of those who experiencd Mr Pilavachi’s behaviour have spoken on a new podcast by Premier Christianity, Soul Survivors. Among them are people who participated in the Soul Survivor gap-year scheme Soul61 (formerly Body Builders). A common theme was the desire to secure approval from Mr Pilavachi as the gatekeeper to opportunities for ministry and travel.

Becky, who joined the scheme in 1995 and remained with Soul Survivor until 2005, spoke of a “toxic culture of power abuse and control. . . God was building me up, and Mike was tearing me down. It was just this mess of stuff that has been so hard to decipher and understand and unpack.”

Mr Pilavachi had demanded “humility” from those seeking to lead worship, and she looked back on spending “ten years just trying to train myself to be smaller”.

She recalled six months of being “ghosted” after confronting him about his behaviour, which left her thinking: “If I can’t go to him . . . there’s no one else who’s got any more power over him to be able to change it.” There had been “years of untangling what was God from what was Mike, what was healthy from what was toxic, what was truth from what was a lie”.

Jonas came to the UK in 1998 to attend Soul Survivor festivals, and had been “singled out” by Mike. But, after deciding to volunteer in an orphanage instead of joining as an intern, he was never spoken to again by Mr Pilavachi, despite continuing to worship at the Soul Survivor church in Watford for three years.


To contact Ms Scolding, email: soulsurvivor@landmarkchambers.co.uk

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