Top SA legal campaigner abused boys for decades in UK‚ says documentary

02 February 2017 - 15:45
By Dave Chambers
John Smyth
Image: Channel 4 News John Smyth

A documentary to be screened in the UK on Thursday names the head of the Justice Alliance of South Africa as the perpetrator of severe assaults on young men and boys over decades.

The alleged assaults by John Smyth have prompted an unreserved apology from the Church of England.

Smyth was chairman of the Iwerne Trust‚ a charity closely linked to the church‚ which ran Christian holiday camps where the abuse is said to have occurred.

The church admitted that it had “failed terribly”‚ after Channel 4 News in the UK learned that the trust discovered the alleged abuse in 1982 but failed to report it to the police.

Smyth‚ a prominent barrister and part-time judge‚ previously left the UK for Zimbabwe.

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He runs the Justice Alliance from his home in Bergvliet‚ in the southern suburbs of Cape Town.

The organisation led the successful Constitutional Court campaign to have President Jacob Zuma’s decision to extend the appointment of Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo declared unconstitutional.

In 2015‚ it went to the high court in Cape Town to stop the Western Cape department of social development placing children in the care system with those awaiting trial.

The Justice Alliance website had been taken down on Thursday‚ but elsewhere on the Internet it describes itself as “a coalition of corporations‚ individuals and churches committed to upholding and fighting for justice and the highest moral standards in South African society.”

It adds: “We take up the issues of and help to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable groups in our society such as women and children.”

Wednesday night’s apology from the Archbishop of Canterbury‚ Justin Welby — who was a dormitory officer at a camp where Smyth was one of the main leaders in the late 1970s — followed a six-month investigation by Channel 4 News‚ which tracked down and spoke with many of Smyth’s alleged victims.

Said presenter Cathy Newman: “One man told us that he and other boys were beaten so violently by Smyth that they had to wear nappies to staunch the bleeding.”

The statement on behalf of Welby said: “We recognise that many institutions fail catastrophically‚ but the Church is meant to hold itself to a far‚ far higher standard and we have failed terribly. For that the Archbishop apologises unequivocally and unreservedly to all survivors.”

Smyth was a moral crusader who made his name as a barrister representing the British Christian campaigner Mary Whitehouse in a landmark prosecution against the Gay News newspaper.

In the Church he was an influential figure as chair of the Iwerne Trust‚ a group which promoted the Bible to young people.

Newman said many teenagers at the holiday camps at Winchester College in the 1970s and 1980s likened Smyth to a cult leader.

“He cultivated small groups of followers‚ over whom he developed a form of psychological control. Favoured young men were invited to visit him at his home for Sunday lunch‚” she said.

“Now men in their fifties‚ they allege Smyth would recite passages of the Bible to them‚ before beating them with a cane in his garden shed.

“Mark Stibbe‚ who went on to be a vicar and is now an author‚ told us: ‘It was along the lines of‚ this is the discipline that God likes‚ this is what’s going to help you to become holy’.

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“Richard Gittins ... told us: ‘We used to have to put nappies on (and after grace) everybody would sit down together. And in the process of sitting down‚ we perfected the ability to sit down really quickly‚ before your bottom touched the chair‚ and in the last couple of inches you’d just ease yourselves down; so it didn’t look like you were in any pain.’

“Another man‚ who has given evidence to us anonymously‚ said he grew so fearful of the beatings that he tried to take his own life in 1981.”

Newman said the suicide attempt prompted the Iwerne Trust to launch an investigation and compile a confidential report‚ which had been seen by Channel 4 News and described what it called the “beatings” of 22 young men.

The document‚ written in 1982‚ said: “The scale and severity of the practice was horrific … eight received about 14‚000: two of them having some 8‚000 strokes over three years.”

Despite the findings of the report‚ the Iwerne Trust did not inform the police. “Instead‚ a senior figure in the Iwerne Trust wrote to John Smyth‚ telling him to leave the country. He went on to live in Zimbabwe‚ and then South Africa‚” said Newman.

In its statement‚ Lambeth Palace said that by 2013 the police had been notified about allegations against Smyth. The archbishop’s chaplain showed Welby a letter written by the Bishop of Ely to the Archbishop of Cape Town referring to “concerns” expressed by “an alleged survivor”.

Winchester College told Channel 4 it “deeply regrets” the ordeals of the victims. “The college has never sought to conceal these dreadful events. Nothing was held back in 1982 in the school’s enquiries.

“Housemasters were informed‚ and many parents consulted. The then headmaster met John Smyth and required him to undertake never again to enter the college or contact its pupils.

“No report was made to the police at the time‚ not least because‚ understandably‚ parents of the victims felt that their sons should be spared further trauma‚ and these wishes were respected.”

Newman said she put the allegations to Smyth on camera‚ and he replied: “I’m not talking about what we did at all.” He called some of the claims nonsense and declined to respond to further requests.

Smyth and his wife, Anne, left their house to welcome guests arriving by car on Thursday afternoon but did not respond to questions. Smyth home telephone was not answered, his cellphone was off and he did not respond to WhatsApp or SMS messages from  TimesLive

- TMG Digital/TimesLIVE