As Cain discovered after he murdered his brother Abel, it’s not just the crime, but the cover-up that does the damage. In April the Titus Trust settled a civil claim brought by three men who were abused by John Smyth QC. The trustees made a small payment to the men, and issued a limited apology. The three men who bravely took on the trust are now demanding that its work should be closed. I have lived and breathed this sad business for five years, and I have come to agree with them. Two factors lead me to this sad conclusion. The first is that the behaviour of the current Titus trustees following the revelations makes them unfit to lead a Christian mission. The second is that the goals and culture of their mission are at best outdated, and at worst sub-Christian.
I first brought John Smyth’s grotesque abuse to public attention in February 2017 with the help of Channel 4 News. The trust had already been approached by one of the victims three years earlier. In the intervening time some of the trustees had worked hard to avoid the story becoming public. We now know that some of the very same people had done exactly the same thing when they first learnt of the abuse 35 years earlier.
No organisation can wholly eliminate the possibility of abuse, but a Christian mission should surely stand out in the way it responds. Since the Channel 4 broadcasts, the approach of the Titus Trust has been to tough it out, and deny any responsibility. They have declined repeated pleas from Smyth’s victims to meet with them, or to release information they held. No attempt was made to identify or reach out to other victims in the UK or in Africa. They refused to take part in any inquiry. To be fair, this approach wasn’t shared by all the trustees; some disagreed, and some chose to resign. We can only guess why the remaining trustees chose to pursue a strategy of evasion. Some may sadly have been victims themselves, either of Smyth or of another leader in a similar mould. We know that in addition to Smyth there have been at least four other abusers associated with the Iwerne network, and a further two are under investigation. The pattern is always the same: an older man exploits a relationship with a much younger man or boy. Those we now know about include Revd Jonathan Fletcher, the younger brother of David Fletcher, who ran the camps as leader and then chair of trustees throughout the 1980s and 90s. Jonathan Fletcher attended Iwerne camps every year for five decades, and was the eminence grise of the movement. He was intimately linked with the camps network. Perhaps some who came under his influence are still struggling with shame, and a confusion of loyalties. They need help and encouragement, not further pressure to stay silent.
In their statement last month, the Titus Trust did not apologise for the abuse itself, or for the men’s suffering. They apologised only for the language they had used in communicating their response. The heirs of Iwerne have sought to distance themselves from the abuse. They have said nothing about the cover-up facilitated by Iwerne staff that led to John Smyth being transferred to Africa in 1985, where he went on to abuse at least 90 other young men. They have not confronted the fact that Smyth’s abuse had been widely known within the network for 35 years. They have sought to deflect the blame elsewhere.
Titus Trust’s line of defence has been that they have no legal liability for Iwerne camps prior to 1997 when the trust was formed. They argue that the Iwerne Trust and its work were an entirely different entity. This may be true as a legal point – indeed it is conceivable that the Titus Trust was set up precisely to avoid a legacy of responsibility. But everyone who has had any connection with the movement knows that Iwerne and Titus are the same animal. Indeed, Titus Trust’s own website claimed, until recently, that its work dated back to 1932, linking them directly to the Iwerne work. Titus even uses the word Iwerne for its premier camp. Most of the first trustees of Titus Trust had also been long-standing trustees of Iwerne Trust, and the new trust inherited Iwerne’s mailing list, donors, programme and culture. The character and goals of the work have barely changed in decades.
That brings me to the second reason why the trust must close.
The model at the heart of the Titus trust was set by its revered founder Revd EJH Nash, known universally and without irony as Bash. Nash read little. He took a limited interest in the news, and much less in theology. He was a complex character with a naively simple goal. He wanted to form intimate confessional relationships with young men from a very select group of private schools, and mentor them into the simplistic and all-consuming faith he had learnt from the American evangelist RA Torrey. Torrey was known as “the apostle of certainty” for his aggressive and uncompromising style of Christian devotion.
Having grown up in the shadow of Eton College, Nash understood the emotional void that boarding schools can engender, and interposed himself in the lives of young men as an attentive father-figure. He would drive hundreds of miles to meet a single boy, and would often take individuals out for car rides and breakfast. He would meet them weekly for lengthy one-to-one Bible studies, and would bombard them with scores of highly personal letters. If he had adopted these practices today, he would almost certainly have been barred from working with young people.
This culture of young men intensively mentored by older men produced Christian leaders like John Stott, Justin Welby and Nicky Gumbel. It is also the model that allowed John Smyth, Jonathan Fletcher and quite possibly others to manipulate their followers into degrading acts of obeisance. Behind it lies a repressed sexuality and a deep sense of inadequacy. These practices remain fundamentally unchanged today. Titus Trust’ current safeguarding practices at camp may be of the highest standard, but the intense mentoring relationships at the heart of the Iwerne/Titus model remain wide open to abuse. Barely a week goes by when I don’t hear a fresh tale of a man coming to terms with an inappropriate relationship that took place under the guise of Christian discipleship. The targeting of young men (and now women) from backgrounds of privilege is a deeply questionable form of Christian mission. Its advantage to those who wish to abuse is that aspirational children can be drawn in with a promise of an even higher privilege, the price of which is secrecy and absolute loyalty to their mentors. It would be hard to imagine a strategy less like the calling to follow Jesus, or more prone to spiritual abuse.
The Titus Trust says that it is going to commission an external review of its culture – though no details have emerged as to how or when this might happen. But if the trust was really keen to learn from its mistakes and reform, why has it spent well in excess of £100,000 in legal fees defending the civil claim? (This is many times the amount that the claimants will receive in settlement.) And why has the trust retained one of the most expensive secular Public Relations consultancies in the UK to manage its profile?
If an independent review of the culture of the work does take place, it will surely conclude that the things that need to change are the very things that have defined the work of Iwerne through its history, and that still leave it open to insecure men and women who wish to abuse younger people. If these patterns of activity were ever acceptable, either in a Christian or secular framework, they are certainly not acceptable now. The Titus Trust must close.