What did he know and when? Stephen Parsons talks about Justin Welby’s Smyth apology


In a statement today (Thursday) the Archbishop of Canterbury has said ‘everyone who knew about the abuse perpetrated by the late John Smyth and failed to report it will be investigated by the National Safeguarding Team’.

This extract from the online story by Madeline Davies will be included in the printed version of the Church Times coming out tomorrow, Friday. On the face of it, these words have to be considered as fantasy because the number of people who knew about Smyth in the period between 1982 and 2012 number at least a hundred.   The idea of any organisation investigating a hundred people without enormous resources of manpower and time is risible. But there is a further aspect to the statement by the Archbishop. Many of these presumed witnesses had been known to him personally both in his undergraduate years and later.  He has moved close to these same circles for much of his ministry. He must have had at the very least a suspicion about who knew what, even if  he had limited knowledge of the detail before he was properly briefed in 2013. Since that revelation in 2013, it must have hung heavily upon him as a Christian that so many people he had once looked up to were among the colluders and bystanders for one who did so much evil and caused so much pain.  The pain was not just physical; the actions reverberated right through the networks of loyalty and friendship that bound the constituencies of evangelicals together.  The con evo group which had protected Smyth and his crimes for over 30 years has successfully kept its silence.  Is a promise of an investigation now, forty years on, going to undo any of the damage that the silence had so dramatically prolonged?

The full investigation announced by the Archbishop today, together with his full personal apology to the victims of John Smyth, is additional to the Makin enquiry. This latter is now a full 12 months behind schedule. The report is believed to have turned out to be a long way from completion and we are unlikely to see anything during this calendar year 2021. Even if people are now revealing what they know to Keith Makin, this information has been proving difficult to acquire.  The code of silence and fear that we noted in the Fletcher enquiry seems to be routine in the con-evo circles that Smyth occupied. Assuming a successful completion of the Makin report, we would hope to see the full story revealed by this time next year. What will it show? It will probably show that numbers of people had some inkling that something was amiss, but it was not in their paygrade or their responsibility to do anything about it. Meanwhile considerable sums of money, from private charitable trusts run by the Colman family, were spent on allowing Smyth to take up a post in Zimbabwe and then South Africa where he was free to groom and abuse young men once again.  We must never forget the fate of Guide Nyachuru, whose death should hang heavy on the consciences of all who facilitated the departure of Smyth to Africa.

We need to return to the Archbishop’s statement once more. It is breath-taking in its implications. If everyone who knew Smyth and was in some position to disclose comes to a total of 100 individuals, where are the resources to come from to make this kind of enquiry?  We are not just talking about individuals here and there, we are also talking about entire institutions which were deeply implicated in the story.  There are many stories of corporate failure to add that of individuals.  Just to list the institutions implicated in the Smyth story, we have quite a formidable group. We have the Titus/Iwerne trustees, Winchester College, Scripture Union and the entire REFORM network at the time. There are also several large parishes where the Iwerne influence was strong. There is also the question of the funding bodies that enabled the Zambezi Mission to come into being. The full story of what John Smyth did overseas has yet to be told. Are there institutions in Zimbabwe and South Africa to be investigated for enabling his activities? How does one set up enquiries into so many groups and organisations? The obvious answer is that it is impossible.

When we come to the individuals who knew, or may have suspected, that something was seriously wrong, we are dealing with quite a large group of current leaders in the con evo world. Obviously, many of them were extremely young at the time but we need to hear directly from them.  Hugh Palmer, the former Vicar of All Souls Langham Place, is named in some accounts as knowing the events of the past around Smyth.  The slightly younger generation of leaders, like William Taylor, need to come forward and tell everything they knew.  Silence is not the same as ignorance.  Silence may indicate complicity at the least.   It is hard to imagine that a one-time chairman of the Iwerne Trust was allowed to disappear without any discussion or comment. One would like to know more about the relationship between Jonathan Fletcher and John Smyth.  Fletcher’s silence about his own alleged misconduct is perhaps typical of the culture of the con evo world.  If that is not in fact a repeated pattern right across the network, then we need to hear more from the current leaders.  They need to speak frankly and openly about what they knew.  If they do not, then their reputations and their place in the history books will be much diminished.  The public will assume complicity in a massive event where because of silence, abuse and sadistic cruelty were permitted to flourish.

In naming some of the institutions which have some corporate responsibility for the scandals of John Smyth, I realise that, in the secular world, a scandal of this dimension would require resignations and real accountability to be shown. So far, as others have commented, not a single church person has lost a job or been officially reprimanded for the appalling failures for which the Archbishop is now apologising. What seems to be happening now, as before, is that in the face of scandals and past misdeeds of church members, nothing is ever done to make a difference, apart from a wringing of hands and expressions of regret. Individuals have failed, but I feel the greater crime has been the corporate one. I do not know what it is like to be a part of one of the named institutions which has manifestly covered up immorality and crime.  It must, in fact, be appalling to be guilty of knowing dark secrets and having done nothing to bring them to light.  The names of the wealthy trustees of the mission charity supporting Smyth in Africa are well known, but they have never come forward, as far as I know, to reveal their part in the drama or express regret for it.

I wish that it were possible for the NST to do this gargantuan task. It cannot and will not.  Perhaps the promise to do something impossible is a ploy aimed at calming, temporarily, the anger of all those who have suffered at the hands of John Smyth.  I end my somewhat angry rant about the Archbishop’s statement without any clear suggestions for what can be done to resolve the promise of something which is impossible to do.  Perhaps on his return from sabbatical, the Archbishop should help the situation by setting up a response to the Smyth scandal which is possible to accomplish in such a way that would help survivors.