Britain’s archbishop of Canterbury on Thursday issued a personal apology to victims of physical abuse who attended Christian holiday camps in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“Having met some victims now, I want to offer a full, personal apology,” Justin Welby said, speaking in his capacity as the head of the Church of England.
“I am sorry that this was done in the name of Jesus Christ by a perverted version of spirituality and evangelicalism. It is clear that the impact of this has been widespread.”
He added that as he continued to hear new details of the abuse, he felt “his sorrow, shock, and horror grow.”
Welby himself worked at one of the camps in the ‘70s as a dormitory officer, but was unaware of the abuse, and there is no suggestion he is lying or implicated.
The abuse was carried out by a lawyer called John Smyth, who died in 2018.
Smyth savagely beat teenage boys who attended his camps. The camps were meant to ensure that young men from top private schools and universities become committed Christians, as they were the most likely to go on to become influential members of the establishment.
The abuse was recorded in a secret report in 1982 by the Iwerne Trust, which funded the camps at the time. Smyth was chairman of the trust.
Andrew Watson, now bishop of Guildford, was one of Smyth’s victims. In 2017, he came forward and said that on one occasion he was subject to a “violent, excruciating and shocking” beating.
Smyth’s reputation was global. When he moved to Zimbabwe, he was again accused of beating young boys, and at one point was arrested and charged with killing a 16-year-old.
The case was dismissed, and he later moved to Cape Town, South Africa.
Church could have done more
Welby’s statement acknowledged the anger that the church could have done more to stop Smyth in 2013 when they were made aware of the abuse.
“By this time Mr. Smyth had been out of the UK for nearly thirty years. We, the Church, were unclear as to his activities abroad or indeed to the utterly horrendous scope and extent of his actions here and overseas,” he stated.
“I apologize on behalf of the Church of England to all those in Africa who were abused after John Smyth had been uncovered in the UK in 1982, although the Church did not know, owing to the cover-up, of the abuse until 2013,” he added.
In 2019, the Church of England announced an independent review of its handling of abuse complaints. It is expected to report later this year and be published in full.
Welby said that he met with survivors of the abuse, and promised that the investigation would continue no matter what.
“These victims are rightly concerned that no one appears to have faced any sanction yet when it is clear a number of Christians, clergy and lay, were made aware of the abuse in the 1980s, and many learned in subsequent years,” he said.
“I have made it clear that the National Safeguarding Team will investigate every clergy person or others within their scope of whom they have been informed who knew and failed to disclose the abuse,” he added.
“I am aware of what a long wait it has been for John Smyth’s victims. The abuse was almost forty years ago, and it was first disclosed in 2012. I applaud the bravery of those who came forward and all those who have testified since. I know this has come at great personal cost and continues to cause suffering,” Welby said.
“The Church has a duty to look after those who have been harmed. We have not always done that well.”