Winchester college society was cult-like, finds report into child abuse

Members of Christian Forum in 70s and 80s ‘showed signs of what would today be described as radicalisation’

The Guardian/January 18, 2022

By Harriet Sherwood

A cult-like evangelical Christian society at a leading private school allowed a powerful and charismatic barrister to groom and sadistically abuse boys with impunity, an investigation has found.

Members of the Christian Forum at Winchester college “showed signs of what would today be described as radicalisation”, said a 197-page review commissioned by the elite school into abuse carried out by John Smyth QC.

The school’s then headteacher, John Thorn, was informed of the abuse in 1982 but did not report it to police. Smyth moved to Zimbabwe, where he abused “as many as 90 boys, possibly resulting in the death of one”, the report said.

Winchester college apologised “unreservedly” for its part in the “terrible experiences” of Smyth’s victims. In a statement, it said: “The review … demonstrates in particular that John Smyth was able to infiltrate the college’s Christian community and gain access to the college’s pupils, providing him with the opportunity to groom and then abuse them.”

The review, published on Tuesday, said that Smyth had “unfettered access” to the college. “Multiple staff members, including the headmaster, were aware that Smyth was in close contact with boys in the Christian Forum and that he had a powerful influence over them”.

However, “levels of supervision … were not sufficient to prevent or detect the physical or sexual abuse which Smyth perpetrated against pupils.”

Pupils felt unable to disclose the abuse to staff, and staff members who had suspicions about Smyth’s activities did not share them with each other or report them upwards.

Thorn, who is in his 90s, was unable to answer questions for the review. Smyth died in 2018.

Up to 100 pupils attended the college’s weekly Christian Forum, which was dominated by Smyth. “The inner circle of the Christian Forum which formed around Smyth in the 1970s and early 1980s shares many features of a cult. Its members showed signs of what would today be described as radicalisation,” the review concluded.

Boys were invited to Smyth’s home for Sunday lunch with his wife and three children, and some were subjected to brutal beatings in Smyth’s garden shed. One survivor said he received more than 1,000 strokes on one occasion. Two survivors later attempted suicide.

In 2017, Andrew Watson, a former Winchester college pupil who is now the bishop of Guildford, said he had been subjected to a “violent, excruciating and shocking” beating by Smyth in his garden shed.

One survivor told the reviewers that Smyth “made me feel special, part of an inner circle”. The QC imposed a “code of loyalty and secrecy”, the report said.

Smyth also invited some Winchester boys to attend Christian summer camps, run by the Iwerne Trust, that were aimed at moulding the next generation of Christian leaders in public life. Smyth groomed boys at the camps for abuse in his shed.

Some parents of Smyth’s victims raised concerns about his apparent hold over their children with Winchester college staff. Euan MacAlpine, a former housemaster, told an internal investigation in 2017: “We all suspected but never got together to discuss it.” In 1979, he told one parent: “The whole thing really is most awkward since none of us housemasters can tackle Smyth directly.”

Thorn became aware of the abuse in September 1982, the report said. He wrote to one father: “It’s literally unbelievable. Because it was unbelievable, it was something none of us guessed at.”

In October 1982, Thorn and two parents visited Smyth to get him to sign an undertaking to cut all ties with the school and seek psychiatric help. Thorn wrote: “We have I feel rendered him pretty well harmless.”

At no stage were the police or any other statutory body informed of Smyth’s abuse. The report said: “As a result of [Thorn’s] inability to participate in the review, the reviewers have not been able to determine the reasons why no report was made.”

The reviewers said they were aware of 13 former Winchester college pupils who were abused by Smyth, but it was “likely there were other victims”.

The Church of England has also commissioned a review of its handling of allegations made against Smyth, which is due to report this year. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who worked at the Iwerne Trust camps in the 1970s, apologised to survivors last year.

In a statement, two survivors welcomed the report, saying the college had taken a “brave step … to establish the truth of what happened 40 years ago”. They commended the college’s “honesty and integrity”.

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