Church drops leader with reputation for 'horrific beatings'

05 February 2017 - 02:00 By DAVE CHAMBERS
domestic violence, abuse, file photo, crime
domestic violence, abuse, file photo, crime
Image: iStock

A lawyers said to have inflicted beatings at Christian holiday camps for teenage boys has been dismissed from his leadership position at a Cape Town church.

And one of John Smyth's victims in Zimbabwe said he could "completely understand" how Guide Nyachuru, 16, would have drowned at a camp under the 75-year-old's supervision.

"He used to tell us to undress and walk down to the pool at night, holding hands in pairs," said Bulawayo cattle farmer Jason Leanders, 37. "It would be pretty dangerous if you couldn't swim."Andrew Thomson, pastor of Church-on-Main in Wynberg, Cape Town, said Smyth had agreed to step down as the head of a small group of congregants.

Thomson said he had been shocked to hear allegations that Smyth, director of the Justice Alliance of South Africa, administered "horrific beatings" to 22 boys in the UK.

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However, two years ago, when Smyth joined the church, he informed Thomson he had been charged with culpable homicide over Nyachuru's death, but later exonerated.

Philip Rosenthal, of the Christian View Network, said Smyth had been persona non grata among Christian advocacy organisations for more than a decade. "A series of organisations pushed him out ... over various allegations until 2006. Pretty well all of them stopped working with him, since when he has operated independently," he said.

The Telegraph reported yesterday that Smyth had issued a statement to church leaders in Zimbabwe in which he accepted that beating British teenagers had been "entirely wrong" and blamed it on the pressures of work and an addiction to sedatives.

Smyth, a barrister, made the admission in March 1989, a month after John Thorn - a former headmaster of Winchester College, where the alleged beatings took place - published a book in which he referred to the assaults.

The statement said: "Within a few days of the matter first coming to the attention of older Christians in February 1982, John accepted that what he had been doing was entirely wrong and he has never sought to justify it since. He had, for some years previously, become completely dependent on sleeping pills, and there is no doubt that this extraordinary aberration of judgment was in some way linked with that."

Smyth also lost his job as Justice Alliance director. Board member Stephen van Rhyn said: "The board is assessing the situation following these highly disturbing reports."

The Channel 4 documentary, An Ungodly Crime?, said a church charity produced a report in 1982 that found Smyth had caned boys at Winchester, often after reading a Bible verse that talks of shedding blood in the "struggle against sin".

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The report, which described the beatings as "technically all criminal offences", was hushed up and a senior church figure advised Smyth to leave the country.

He arrived in Zimbabwe in 1984, and was charged with culpable homicide in 1997 over Nyachuru's death. The case collapsed and Smyth moved to South Africa in 2001.

Leanders said: " If there was a shadow hanging over him over his actions in England, why was he not investigated over there?"    

Leanders said beatings were part of his childhood "but it was more perverted with John. We all slept in a big dormitory and he insisted on us taking a nap in the middle of the day and we had to be naked for that. I was beaten a lot by him, for almost anything. I used to have to go up to his room, take my pants down, he would tell me to lean over the bed and he would whack me with a table tennis bat. I didn't bleed, but it was very painful to sit down."

Smyth and his wife, Anne, appeared to have locked up their Bergvliet home and left on Friday. He has not responded to messages.

His son, PJ Smyth, issued a statement on Thursday to members of the Covenant Life Church in Maryland, US, where he has just taken over as pastor after 10 years at the network of GodFirst churches in Johannesburg.

It said: "I became aware yesterday that a story broke in the UK media reporting that my father, John Smyth, was apparently involved in excessive physical discipline of high school/college-aged boys. Reading the reports is deeply troubling, and my heart and prayers go out to anyone who was, or is, affected."

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