John Smyth used evangelical group to groom Winchester boys, review finds

Former Iwerne Trust chairman John Smyth QC gained ‘unfettered access’ to Winchester College from the early 1970s to 1982 which ‘enabled him to groom boys and created opportunities for abuse’ , concludes an independent review.

The review, released on Tuesday, was conducted by Jan Pickles, a freelance registered social worker, and Genevieve Woods, a criminal defense lawyer. The review was commissioned by the school in 2019 and is separate from two other ongoing reviews: an independent review by Keith Makin, commissioned by the Church of England, and a review by the Scripture Union.

The Winchester College review states that Smyth, who died in 2018 (News, August 17, 2018), used his position as chairman of the Iwerne Trust, which ran holiday camps for state school boys in the 1970s, ” to interact with students” at school, some of whom he then beat up in his garden shed and other places (News, February 10, 2017).

His main route to school was through the Christian Forum, an evangelical group that met on Sundays. It was founded in 1972 by the Reverend John Woolmer, professor of mathematics at Winchester College, who returned to school after training for ordination.

Smyth had previously started a Christian group for ‘Wykehamists’ who had links to the Iwerne camps at his home in Winchester in the early 1970s. Mr Woolmer started the Christian Forum, with the consent of the director of the era, John Thorn, “to unearth the secret House of Smyth group,” the review says.

Nonetheless, Mr. Woolmer invited Smyth to be a guest speaker at the Forum “once a quarter,” and Smyth attended between 30 and 40 percent of its meetings. The review says one of his witnesses, a former student, “remembered thinking it was strange that he was just sitting in the library listening to Christian Forum meetings because he was not not a staff member of Winchester College”.

Smyth took the initiative to recruit students for the Christian Forum, with the help of a school math teacher, Peter Krakenberger. Smyth arranged one-on-one meetings with students, some of which took place in the bedroom of Mr. Krakenberger’s apartment on the school grounds.

Smyth would also invite some Christian Forum students to his home on Sundays, “apparently to share lunch with his family.” One of the victims the critics spoke to “said he believed Smyth was using his family as a cover for his abuse.” Other victims and witnesses described how Smyth encouraged nude bathing in the family pool and nudity during showers after sailing trips.

One of the victims who testified at the review explained how he took up the invitation to have Sunday lunch with Smyth because he was not receiving any pastoral care at the school, which was “a place of immense emotional deprivation and brutality”.

Smyth warned the boys not to confide in their householders, whom he considered to be “unhealthy”, the review said.

After some housemasters expressed concerns about Smyth’s behavior towards pupils, in 1977 Mr Thorn recruited the Reverend Mark Ashton, a conservative evangelical, to join the school’s chaplaincy team, to “to help manage the tensions resulting from the Christian forum”.

Nonetheless, Smyth’s access to the school and influence over some students grew. “As his contact with the school and the Christian Forum increased, Smyth was able to establish a relationship of trust with the boys who attended the Christian Forum in Sight of College. Meetings with Smyth took place at the College, in Peter Krakenberger’s house, near the school, and in his family home Contact took place in the middle of the week and also on weekends.

Smyth used his frequent encounters with the students to “build intense relationships. . . and to have conversations with them about sexual activities”. This included “discussing and disclosing masturbation and impure thoughts so that it becomes normal conversation within this special group.” One victim told examiners ‘he felt compelled to tell Smyth anything he asked of him and believed he used cross-examination techniques on the boys’.

Smyth’s grooming of students turned into physical beatings, to which Smyth gave theological justification. “Smyth told the boys that they were chosen by God to do great things and that he was sent by God to be his ‘spirit father’ on Earth,” the review states. “As a spiritual father, he said he had the right and the duty to discipline ‘his sons’.

“He quoted the proverb, ‘He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him chastises him diligently.’ He told the boys that they could show their gratitude to Jesus by nailing their sins to the cross. This is the reasoning he used to inflict physical violence.

One victim told the review that he was first beaten by Smyth when he was 17, in the fall of 1978, with six blows using a sports shoe. “Beating evolved into the use of a cane. On one occasion, he was subjected to an 800-pound beating, which lasted all day.

Some aspects of Smyth’s abuse were “sexual in nature”, although no victim disclosed to examiners that she had been raped.

Victims spoke of how Smyth used scripture passages to break their resistance. “In the context of an evangelical group that adhered to the principle of biblical infallibility, this use of scripture meant that some victims felt unable to question its claims.” The review compares its approach to radicalization techniques or a sect.

Critics say they are aware of 13 former students of the school who were abused by Smyth. “Not all of the abuse involved physical assault or beatings. Some of the victims were subjected to severe emotional and spiritual abuse and inappropriate sexualized behavior. »

The review says Smyth was careful to keep his abuse of Winchester students a secret. “He groomed his victims to believe they were special and ‘other’, part of an elite group in which outsiders were excluded and viewed as inferior. He taught his chosen boys to share information only with him and not with teachers, chaplains or other students at Winchester College. . . As a result, the victims kept their suffering a secret for many years, not only from their teachers and parents, but from each other.

Nonetheless, he said, school staff knew that Smyth spent a lot of time alone with students and knew that his relationships with some were so close that he even invited them to be godparents to his children. Parents of some students had also raised concerns, and “several Housemasters” were so suspicious of Smyth that they banned students from visiting his home.

“Some of these concerns may be relatively low level when considered individually, but had appropriate information sharing processes been in place among staff, the College would have been able to recognize inappropriate behavior from from Smyth and could have taken steps to try to limit his contact with the students.

The review, however, states that “there is no evidence that any action has been taken in response to concerns about Smyth’s relationship with the boys.”

It concludes that “if Smyth had been prosecuted for the tort of assault or assault causing actual bodily harm in the 1980s or later based on the evidence shared with the examiners, there would have been a reasonable prospect of condemnation.

“Despite the limitations of the academic literature and the training of local authorities at the time, the legislative framework for child protection in the early 1980s was clear enough to have the potential to protect children from such abuse. , if it had been invoked.

“A criminal justice response of this type could have resulted in formal legal consequences for Smyth, up to and including conviction and imprisonment, but would in any event have raised awareness of the risk he posed while working. with children. If those who knew about the abuse had reported to the police, it could have protected other children, including those who were later abused by Smyth in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The reviewers say they ‘found no evidence that there was a widespread culture of abuse at Winchester College in the 1970s and 1980s’.

Mr Thorn is still alive, but reviewers were told he would not be able to answer their questions ‘due to concerns about his health and well-being’. This view was supported by “a formal capacity assessment. . . undertaken by independent health professionals”. Extracts from the minutes were, however, sent to “an independent legal representative to act on his behalf”.

He says Mr Thorn did not dispute the “unrestricted access” to the school that Smyth was able to obtain gradually, from the early 1970s until 1982, when abuse was revealed to Mr Thorn. The review provides the text of a handwritten letter that Mr Thorn delivered to Smyth, in October 1982, pledging “unequivocally to break completely with those whom I have implicated in a practice which I now accept as wrong and erroneous” and “to seek specialist medical advice immediately and to receive treatment if advised”.

The letter in the school files is unsigned. It is not known whether Smyth ever signed a copy.

A statement from the Principal and Fellows of Winchester College, released on Tuesday, said: ‘We recognize the courage and determination of the victims in seeking the truth about John Smyth: their testimony is at the heart of this review. The College unreservedly apologizes for its part in their terrible experiences.

Two former students who were victimized by Smyth have expressed their appreciation for the College’s unqualified apology. “But, of course, apologizing is not the same as taking responsibility. For us the victims, how the College now demonstrates that it is indeed taking its share of responsibility and how willing it is to redress the terrible abuses we have suffered will be the true measure of their apology.

“We are encouraged by the College’s establishment of a Compensation Advisory Group to consider supporting Smyth’s victims and look forward to working together to find ways to bring further healing and perhaps even to find some sort of reconciliation.”

Jennifer C. Burleigh