What can we learn from this allegation of abuse?

Over recent years as I've heard the claim by the far right that child sexual exploitation is “a Muslim thing”, that it should be be attributed to their faith,  I’ve reflected many times on child sexual exploitation (CSE) in Christian contexts. We set up FACES (Faiths Against Child Sexual Exploitation) in Luton to stand together as Muslims and Christian leaders to oppose all sexual exploitation of children and young people, to address its presence in the midst of communities of faith,  and by doing so together to confront the idea that CSE is a religiously inspired problem.

Over the past few days I've been following the developing story involving extreme physical abuse (with some sexual dimensions) of numerous young boys by John Smythe, a barrister and the one-time leader of Iwerne Christian summer camps, during the 70s and early 80’s. Allegations  also involve pupils at Winchester School. There are currently 22 victims identified and it's possibly the biggest church related case for many years, and its impact is widespread. Iwerne  played a significant part in shaping conservative evangelical culture during the 20th century, with many senior leaders attending its camps. A number of Christian leaders are now speaking out about their abuse, or apparent innocent involvement in Iwerne .  There would seem to be  significant lessons for us as we try to understand how abuse can exist and flourish in a faith community, how it's propagators can distort religious teaching, why abused people don't easily speak up, and what happens when they do.

I won't retell the story. The original Channel 4 account does that perfectly adequately, and was followed by an account of similar problems in Zimbabwe after Smythe was asked by Iwerne trustees to leave  the UK. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, was a junior officer at Iwerne camps in the 70’s, knew Smythe, but says he was not involved.  There has been much comment, and other dimensions including by a number of survivors, including for example this published anonymously.  There is an account of Smythe persuading one of his victims to join in the abuse. On Monday Andrew Watson, Bishop of Guildford, said he'd been abused once by Smythe.  At least one boy committed suicide, and at least one other attempted suicide. The Telegraph have published a copy of a letter sent by Smythe to parents of campers.

It's important to say, the abuse as we currently understand it was primarily physical, not sexual. However there do appear to have been sexual dimensions: ‘pretty boys’ were chosen; beatings were conducted in the nude; the Iwerne culture included late evening nude bathing; Smythe showered nude with the boys; boys were questioned about masturbation and beaten accordingly. Nothing particular is known yet of African victims. Yet even though it is not primarily sexual, many aspects are the same, and the degree of detail known in this case  allows much to be learned.

Let me first say, I've thought much about this as I’m personally impacted, though not as a victim. As a grammar school boy I wasn't immediately in the Iwerne circle, but on arriving at Oxford in 1976 as a deeply committed Christian with potential to lead I quickly discovered one was likely to go a lot further if one had that card to play. For a while it felt like I was being groomed into a role, but I didn't like the grooming, it wasn't charismatic Christian faith as I knew it, and it was way too posh for tenant farmers son. I eventually identified myself as the charismatic I was, opted out of the evangelical in-group, and I never went any further up the Oxford Christian ladder.

This brings me to my first point, understanding how abuse can exist and flourish in a faith community. I should be clear, my ‘distant’ experience of Iwerne and its brand of conservative Christian faith never had a hint of anything like the physical or sexual abuse we are now reading about.  Yet I choose to use the word grooming very intentionally, for it is essentially a word about relationships. It's about the creation of a particular style of relationship that easily leads to  an offer of reward if you continue in the relationship, an emotional dependence, a commitment to a brand or indeed a cult, and an unhealthy in-group atmosphere. And I could see how it could be easy to abuse as clearly Smythe did. When a faith community,  Christian or any other, creates that sort of in group environment it can quickly be turned to nurturing unhealthy, abusive practices. The abuse can either be focussed internally to group members, as in Smythe’s case, or might be focused outward as the in-group develop and justify abusive relations with outsiders.

The second point I'd draw briefly from the case here is as to how abusers distort religious teaching, in this case to make abuse acceptable to its victims.  Bishop Andrew made a very helpful statement yesterday:

“ 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.” (Statement)

I never had anything but admiration at the time  for the Christian self discipline exercised by the Iwerne people I knew, though retrospectively in some people it seemed very legalistic, and self righteous.  However I can see how some who were groomed would have been ripe for exploitation by the idea that physical discipline would bring victory over sin. Remember this was the 70’s when corporal punishment was still around in state as well as public schools. Indeed Smythe, light heartedly told parents of the two levels of discipline he would apply to  high spirited campers.

Religious passion exercised in an in-group (or cultish) environment by emotionally dependant people will allow behavioural excesses or abuse to take place unchecked. It clearly did in Smythe’s Iwerne circles.

My Muslim colleagues strong denunciation of sexual exploitation of children and young people has persuaded me that the abuse and disrespect of women has no part in a true practise of Islam. However the testimony in some trials suggest that ethnic, religious and moral superiority has played a significant part in creating an in-group, along with a dehumanisation of  victims. (Report of Oxford trial.)  They then cultivate emotional and often drug dependency among victims, though in this case religion would seem to play no part in that.

Thirdly the case shows us how hard abused people find it to  speak up. The men abused who have in recent days spoken out are to all outside observers well adjusted individuals.  Doubtless one will in retrospect see explanation for some actions in the past. They have clearly carried great pain for as much as forty years. Yet they have not disclosed their story. Others, like the Iwerne board members who saw a report on Smythe in 1982, have for various reasons stayed quiet.  Christian columnist, one time ‘agony aunt’ Anne Atkins wrote a piece in 2012 in the Daily Mail during the heart of the Jimmy Saville  story telling a story of child sexual exploitation that had been disclosed to her several years before.  Her central question was, why did she not tell, why did the system not tell, why did the victim not tell.

Why on earth didn’t I urge my friend to go to the police? The really shocking thing is, it simply never occurred to me. And, to be more honest than I am at  all comfortable with, it is still almost unthinkable. I come back to the question again. Why?

The first and only decent reason is because of my love for my friend. It never occurred to Chris to report the incidents. I was not told about them with this purpose in mind. So it would be an extreme violation of friendship and confidence to do so on my own initiative, and I will never do this without Chris’s permission.

But this still begs the question, why has Chris not done so? And what are the other reasons that prevented me from even thinking of it? Because of who Peter is. He is a member of a very highly regarded profession. Many people look up to him, and would acknowledge the benefit they derive from his work. To expose him would be devastating to an entire community.

I know, I know; this is no reason at all. I am not attempting to excuse myself, but merely explain. …

Anne Atkins gives on to unpack her reasons, her questions. Then, under a thin wrap, her own knowledge of Smythe – her family knew him – and of his abuse and exile. She concludes.

Power, influence and personality – whether on the national stage or within close communities – is daunting. How much more so must it seem to young people and children?

I don't excuse her, just as she doesn't excuse herself. But she helps us to understand why so much pain can remain unspoken of even when so many know. These are other wise good people, and they do so much good. They are well respected. Who would believe us? We know this doesn't represent the best of our faith. Why squander our good reputation because of one bad guy? The excuses roll off the tongue. And all around us others are thinking the same way.  And so the conspiracy of silence perpetuates.

There are many reasons for silence, and Christian communities must learn from them. As we do so, I have every confidence our Muslim friends will as well. Our Luton FACES group will be doing  all we can to ensure we can learn from each other rather than point the finger.

There is one final point I want to reflect on here from this story. What happens when people do talk up and speak of abuse? Anne Atkins wrote another article this weekend updating the story. She writes more of Iwerne, it's positives, and her own short relationship with it. She also writes of the fear of peer disapproval, the anxiety when a perpetrator tried to contact her, and living a sense of betrayal (my words). It's the in-group mentality again. Communities of people connected by faith are so vulnerable to that.

Yet for Christians speaking truth to power lies at the heart of our faith. We must be countercultural, it's a part of our inheritance. Jesus commands to take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of someone else’s - i.e. Look in the mirror before criticising another. There is more  virtue in talking about our weakness than in strutting around in our strength. And I venture to suggest that my Muslim friends would say the same. Our FACES community will continue to have that conversation, not least in the light of this emerging story and it's lessons.

There is much more that could be written of the Smythe story.  Many others have done do. And as I was writing last evening Channel 4 reported on more from Africa. It was shocking. Doubtless there will be more. And it will all roll round again as the story comes to court. Reputations will fall over it I would guess. But hopefully in it all we as Christians, and people of other faiths, will learn some lessons


© Peter G M Adams 2017.