Welby in spotlight over sadistic abuse claims at Christian camps

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Church of England to review its handling of allegations about John Smyth in 70s and 80s

The archbishop of Canterbury is expected to come under scrutiny in an independent review ordered by the Church of England into allegations of sadistic beatings of boys at Christian holiday camps.

Two key organisations have declined to take part in the review.

The review, announced by the church on Tuesday, will examine its handling of claims that John Smyth QC carried out violent beatings of boys and young men in the 1970s and 80s. Smyth met his alleged victims, many of whom attended Winchester College, a public school, at “Bash camps”.

Justin Welby worked at the evangelical holiday camps, financed by the Iwerne Trust, as a “dormitory officer” in the 1970s, and was acquainted with Smyth, who was chairman of the trust between 1974 and 1981.

Lambeth Palace, the archbishop’s headquarters, is expected to hand to the review team documents in Welby’s possession which relate to the abuse allegations or action taken in connection with the claims. Welby may also agree to give evidence.

However, the Titus Trust, which took over the activities of the Iwerne Trust when it was wound up in 1997, has said it is restricted by legal action from fully participating in the review. The Scripture Union, which managed the camps, has also told the church it will not participate.

Smyth died from a heart attack last August shortly before he was due to be extradited to the UK from his home in Cape Town to be interviewed by Hampshire police about the allegations. Hampshire police opened an investigation in 2017 into the claims following an exposé by Channel 4 News.

At the time, Welby said he had been “completely unaware” of any abuse by Smyth when he worked at the camps, and that he first knew of the allegations in 2013.

He recalled Smyth as “a charming, delightful, very clever, brilliant speaker”, but said he “wasn’t in his inner circle”. He also issued an “unreserved and unequivocal” apology on behalf of the Church of England, admitting that it had “failed terribly” to tackle institutional abuse.

The review will be led by Keith Makin, a former director of social services, and will examine the response to the Smyth allegations by the church, the Titus Trust, the Scripture Union and Winchester College. The latter has agreed to cooperate and provide all relevant documentation.

The Iwerne Trust invited boys and young men from public schools and top universities to attend holiday camps, with the aim of ensuring that future members of the establishment were committed Christians.

Winchester College knew in 1982 of allegations of sadomasochistic abuse by Smyth of boys and young men he met at the camps, known as “Bash camps” after the nickname of their founder, EJH Nash. Smyth invited them to his Hampshire home, where he beat them in his garden shed, it is claimed.

An unpublished report commissioned by the Iwerne Trust in 1982 described “horrific” beatings of teenage boys, sometimes until they bled. But neither the college nor the trust reported Smyth to the police. Instead, Winchester’s headmaster asked Smyth never again to enter the college or contact its pupils.

Among Smyth’s alleged victims was Andrew Watson, now the bishop of Guildford, who has said he was subjected to a “violent, excruciating and shocking” beating in the former QC’s garden shed.

Smyth moved to Zimbabwe, where he was the subject of allegations of physical abuse by boys in his care at holiday camps he ran. In 1992, he faced charges of killing a 16-year-old boy found dead in a swimming pool at one of the holiday camps, but the case was dismissed in 1998.

Smyth later moved to Cape Town. Six months before his death, he was removed as a leader of his local church after claims of inappropriate behaviour and a “heavy-handed style of leadership”.

Announcing the review, Peter Hancock, the Church of England’s lead safeguarding bishop, said: “I know for survivors of John Smyth this review into the church’s response – and the response of others – is vital to them. It was their bravery in coming forward that finally brought the abuse perpetrated by Smyth to the attention of the police and wider church.”

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