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Church of England wrestles with summer camp abuse allegations

Church of England wrestles with summer camp abuse allegations

The Archbishop of Canterbury has released two statements following allegations of serious physical abuse by the leader of a Christian summer camp that Welby had attended.

According to Britain’s Channel 4 News, which broke the story, police are investigating detailed allegations of abuse against 22 young men by John Smyth, then leader of the Irwene Trust. The allegations first came to light in the early 1980s, they say, after a young man attempted suicide rather than face further “discipline”. The internal investigation was not reported to the police at that time.

Smyth subsequently moved overseas.

The Archbishop responded to news reports that he had attended the holiday camp run by Smyth in the late 1970s.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was a Dormitory Officer at Iwerne holiday camp in the late 1970s, where boys from public schools learnt to develop life as Christians. The role was to be a mentor to the boys, as was that of his now wife at a similar camp for girls.

John Smyth was one of the main leaders at the camp and although the Archbishop worked with him, he was not part of the inner circle of friends; no one discussed allegations of abuse by John Smyth with him.

…In August 2013 the Bishop of Ely wrote to the Bishop of Cape Town, informing him of concerns expressed to his Diocese Safeguarding Adviser about Mr Smyth from an alleged survivor. The British Police had been notified. The Archbishop’s Chaplain at the time was forwarded this letter, and subsequently showed it to the Archbishop for information only.

The Archbishop has repeatedly said that he believes that the safeguarding of children and vulnerable adults should be a principle priority in all parts of the Church, and that any failings in this area must be immediately reported to the police.

The Rt Rev. Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, told Channel 4 that the camps had “extraordinary influence” among evangelicals of an entire generation, adding

The theology that these people bring to the table very often has an element of violence and a sort of nastiness in it, a kind of element of punitive behaviour; God is seen as this punitive figure who is somehow out to get people, and I suppose it does blind people to what’s going on in front of them sometimes.

Over the past weekend, the Rt Rev. Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford, made a statement describing his own experience of abuse at the Christian camp.

I am one of the survivors of John Smyth’s appalling activities in the late 1970s and early ’80s. I am also one of the Bishops in the Church of England. This has placed me in a unique and challenging position when it comes to the events of the past few days. My own story is certainly less traumatic than that of some others. I was drawn into the Smyth circle, as they were, and the beating I endured in the infamous garden shed was violent, excruciating and shocking; but it was thankfully a one-off experience never to be repeated. A while later one of my friends attempted suicide on the eve of another session in the shed (a story movingly told in the Channel 4 Report), and at that point I and a friend shared our story.

I have been in contact with the Hampshire police over the weekend, and as such it would not be appropriate to say much more at this time, except that my profoundest prayers are with all those affected by this, and my heartfelt desire is that lessons might be learnt so this never happens again.

Watson added that he does not believe that the Archbishop of Canterbury knew anything of the abuses at the time, thanked him for his apology to abuse survivors, and made an oblique reference to Wilson’s televised remarks.

I would also like to express the concern of myself and some of my fellow survivors that we are seen as people and not used as pawns in some political or religious game. Abusers espouse all theologies and none; and absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since. It was abuse perpetrated by a misguided, manipulative and dangerous man, tragically playing on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.

Welby responded with a second statement of personal support and prayers.

Channel 4 and the Guardian have further (and, be aware, some graphic) details of the allegations, and the Church’s official statements in response.


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