Who knew what and when about abuse at Iwerne?

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The Church of England’s announcement that the first installment of its report into the savage abuses by the late John Smyth QC will be with its National Safeguarding Team (NST) ‘within a month’ seems almost deliberately vague about when the full review will be published.

The press release of April 27th stressed that ‘the Church (as stated by the Archbishop of Canterbury) is committed to full and unredacted publication of the report’. But in rather obscure prose it also stated that the ‘representations process, for all involved is expected to be complex, with the eventual date of publication being determined by this’. 

What is clear, however, is that the lead reviewer into the Smyth scandal, Keith Makin, a former director of social services, and his team need the wisdom of Solomon with more pluses than the letters ‘LGBT’ now have after them.

Among his many challenges, Mr Makin has to deal with the problem of a group of serving CofE clergy now in their 50s and 60s who were in the know about Smyth’s criminal abuses by the mid-1980s.

These men were young officers (leaders) at the Iwerne evangelical camps targeting the ‘top 30’ English fee-paying boarding schools.  Smyth groomed many of his victims at the Iwerne camps. These young men then in their 20s were either ordinands at the evangelical CofE theological colleges in Oxford, Cambridge and Durham or would-be ordinands on their way to a selection conference.

How these Iwerne officers became aware of Smyth’s brutal beatings of boys and young men in the shed of his home near Winchester is not yet known in every case. A few of them were among his victims. But it was the late Rev David Fletcher (1932-2022), ‘commandant’ (overall leader) of the Iwerne camps from the 1960s until he became rector of St Ebbe’s Oxford in 1986, who would have let the bulk of them in on the secret.

The ‘strategic work’ of Iwerne ‘reaching the few to reach the many’ was in peril. If news of the scandal which Fletcher and a few top Iwerne leaders became aware of in early 1982 leaked out, ‘the work of camp’ might have had to close. It was vital to the work that these trusted young officers helped Fletcher to ensure Smyth kept clear of alumni from Iwerne schools particularly at Oxbridge.

The scandal had to be managed ‘for the sake of the work’ and these young officers were persuaded that they were crucial to the ‘stop Smyth’ operation.

Given that violent assault was known to be a crime in the 1980s, these young men could have come to the conclusion that the only proper way to stop Smyth would have been to report him to the police. They could have clubbed together and done that.

But they did not do so. The most likely explanation for that omission is that their moral vision was blindingly dazzled by Fletcher and the Iwerne brand with its celebrated evangelical preachers such as John Stott, Dick Lucas and Michael Green nurtured on the camps. These young men had been to elite boarding schools as boys from middle class homes. Fletcher and his younger brother Jonathan, deeply involved in the Iwerne work over five decades and unmasked in 2019 by The Daily Telegraph as a serial church abuser, played the aspirational card very cleverly with such young men.

Even if they had seen supernatural writing on the wall telling them to stop Smyth by going to the police, it is arguable that the Fletchers would have been able to talk them out of it.

As a social worker Keith Makin will have seen some very messy human situations and this is certainly one of them. How should the Church treat these clergy nearly four decades since the spiritual mentor they revered let them in on the Smyth secret?

Might they themselves have been young victims of a quasi-cultish form of abuse from a clergyman then in his 50s telling them about Smyth’s crimes and manipulating them into keeping the scandal secret ‘for the sake of the work’?

How should the Church treat those on its payroll who were victims of Smyth as boys and young men and who later went on to become parish clergy sharing the ‘cure of souls’ with their bishops and  in some cases became senior clergy?

In sum, what action should the NST take in relation to present clergy who were in the know before they were ordained but did not report Smyth’s crimes to the police? 

In its response to the Makin report, the Church should not evade the reality that had Smyth been properly stopped in the 1980s he would not have been able to go on to abuse boys in Zimbabwe in the 1990s. Campaigners against abuse in the Church  are doing a vital service in continuing to stress that.

The scale of the intellectual and moral challenge facing Keith Makin and his team is considerable. But Smyth’s victims should not be subjected to a delay in the full publication of the report beyond September.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in the UK.