So is Ray Lewis a hero or villain?

The deputy mayor of London was hailed as a leader for troubled black youngsters, then forced to quit after allegations surfaced from his past. Paul Vallely investigates the record of the man cast aside

The boys are all black. Aged between eight and 18 and clad in blazers with white gloves, they march around the hall at the One Love Community Centre in east London. The movement is not quite military, but it is co-ordinated, synchronised and speaks of acting together. This is Eastside, the youth project which aims to turn dysfunctional black boys into leaders in the state schools from which many of them have been suspended or excluded.

The man behind the Eastside Young Leaders' Academy is Ray Lewis, who was forced to resign last week as deputy mayor of London. He shouts at his charges in a booming voice. Punctuality is at a premium and physical punishments, like press-ups, are imposed for infractions of the strict behaviour code. Boot camp is the shorthand that both fans and detractors use of the project.

But it is more than that. Eastside is a place where maths, English and science are taught – along with etiquette, deportment and a host of other old-fashioned virtues – to children of whom mainstream schools have despaired. Black boys like this are six times more likely to be excluded from school than their white counterparts. They have treble the chance of ending up in jail and a minuscule chance of getting to university.

In a poor borough such as Newham, many of the black children hang around on the streets from the time school ends until 8pm or later, when their single mothers come home from work. They turn to gangs for company, often dealing in drugs. It is the crucible in which the increase in gang-related teenage deaths isfomented.

For the past seven years, Ray Lewis and his staff have not just rescued young blacks from this latch-key world. They have offered a vehicle, in Mr Lewis's words, to "get black kids from the courtrooms to the boardrooms". Some 80 boys are now on Eastside's books, attending after school every day during term time and on Saturday morning. During the school holidays the boys carry out community work in residential homes and projects for the homeless, garden and decorate for elderly people and volunteer for charities. Mentors drawn from a pool of successful black businessmen raise the boys' expectations. They are taught how to deal on the stock market.

Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative Party leader, was bowled over when he came across Eastside as he researched solutions to poverty for the party in 2005. "The work he's done is remarkable," says Mr Duncan Smith. "He takes kids from violent, disruptive, broken homes and turns them round."

Three quarters of Eastside boys now aim at university. Two won scholarships to Rugby School last year.

The emphasis on self-reliance and strong family discipline so chimed in with Tory thinking that Mr Duncan Smith spread the word in his party. Before long two veteran Tories, Stephen Norris and Francis Maude, joined the trustees of Eastside, drawing in blue-chip banks such as Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers as donors.

The day he was elected party leader in 2005, David Cameron went to Newham for his first photo opportunity, where Mr Lewis introduced him to the boys as "my friend Dave". When it became clear that Boris Johnson might win the mayoralty, the party hierarchy successfully pushed for Mr Lewis to be appointed as his deputy. A Tory insider, Nick Boles, says the decision was made "in a bit of a rush".

Just two months later, Ray Lewis was forced from office. The time-bomb ticking under him was a file in the office of the Bishop of Chelmsford. Mr Lewis had begun public life as a priest in the Church of England. He was ordained at St Paul's Cathedral in 1990 and three years later became vicar of St Matthew's in West Ham.

It was there that the entries in the file began. In 1995 he was accused of exploiting vulnerable parishioners by borrowing a total of £41,000 and not repaying it. There was also an allegation of sexual harassment. Scotland Yard received a string of complaints against Mr Lewis over the years that followed, including a claim of blackmail. No charges were laid and Mr Lewis strenuously denied all allegations.

Then in 1997 he left the UK for Grenada, where he organised a charity raffle in which the winner never received the car which was the first prize. The Bishop of the Windward Islands complained to the church authorities in the UK. Next a Nigerian bishop, Gabriel Akinbiyi, who had trained at Oakhill theological college with Mr Lewis, complained that a charity the two had set up – and of which Mr Lewis was the treasurer – had been drained of £8,000 of funds.

The Diocese of Chelmsford again reported the case to police but again the police laid no charges. Nor did they in 2000 when they arrested Mr Lewis on suspicion of deception over a house sale. Again he strenuously denied the accusations and he was not charged. The church, however, was satisfied that Mr Lewis had made mistakes which could not be overlooked. He was barred from ministry and preaching.

Mr Lewis's defence was that he had been unorthodox, perhaps unwise, but not illegal. He repeated that to Boris Johnson last week when the allegations were made public. But when he claimed that he was a magistrate, and it turned out he wasn't, he had to resign.

And yet what of his other history? In 2000, after serving as a prison chaplain, he joined the Prison Service and worked for almost two years as a junior governor at HMP Woodhill young offenders' institution. There in 2001 he visited a boot camp in Louisiana aimed at teaching discipline to black youths. He was so impressed that he quit his job and sank £20,000 of his own money into setting up a version over here. The Eastside Young Leaders' Academy has gone from strength to strength.

The man who had stripped Mr Lewis of his right to be a priest, the Rt Rev Roger Sainsbury, the now retired bishop of Barking, watched from afar and was pleased. "I could see Ray was doing well with the Eastside Academy and I thought: 'Good. He's moved on and put it behind him'," he said. "When I saw he was appointed deputy mayor, I felt the same thing. It never occurred to me that the Mayor's people would not have made all the background checks."

But they had not. When the bishop's successor, the Rt Rev David Hawkins, met Mr Johnson at a global day of prayer event at Millwall football stadium in May, he was surprised to see Mr Lewis with him. Two days later he wrote to the Mayor pointing out that Mr Lewis was no longer an authorised minister in the Church of England and suggesting Mr Johnson should get in touch to talk.

The Mayor never responded. It was only several weeks later, when a television journalist approached the church for background on Mr Lewis, that the story unravelled and the barrage of criticism was unleashed.

Is Ray Lewis a hero or a villain? To decide, it is necessary to disentangle the motives of those who have been most vocal on the subject. The Tories are keen to defend Mr Lewis because his appointment reflects upon their judgement. "You have to ask to what extent this is all intended just to get at Boris," says Mr Duncan Smith.

And certainly the politics is multi-layered. The longstanding Labour council in Newham this week recalled that it put a report together in 2005 into allegations of physical abuse at Eastside – five of which were investigated by the police, Scotland Yard confirmed – but conceded that all the allegations were dropped. "The council is on the left and hates Ray Lewis and his methods, which are not for the fainthearted," said Mr Duncan Smith. "I've never seen anything there that isn't part of tough love."

The chaplain at Eastside, the Rev Bruce Stokes, a Baptist minister, is unperturbed by the complaints. "People will say there's no smoke without fire but when you work this way with kids you're bound to be investigated," he said. "I wonder whether its Ray's personality and style that people really object to. In the four years I've known him I've been nothing but impressed by his professionalism and energy."

But there are vested interests on the other side too. The London Evening Standard, a newspaper which was breathtakingly partial in the mayoral elections, has written on the Lewis affair at length, unconvincingly suggesting that the debacle is all the fault of the church.

What is clear is that, in all quarters, individuals are furiously distancing themselves. Senior Tories are irritated with Mr Johnson for the failure to check out Mr Lewis, either before his appointment, or before he and Boris were allowed before the cameras to make things worse. Team Boris were supposed to be setting the template for Team Cameron's entry into No 10 and they have looked unconvincing.

At Eastside, the child protection officer, Dapo Abidoye, said he had "nothing to say" about the affair. So did Richard Atterbury, the co-head of global finance at Lehman Brothers, one of the City luminaries who is an Eastside trustee. The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, Eastside's patron, issued a statement saying he did not have "any involvement, or fiduciary obligation, relating to the strategic or day-to-day management" there. "A review of the list of organisations for which the Archbishop acts as patron," it added ominously, "is carried out periodically."

Loyalists, such as Mr Duncan Smith, have accused the media, and Mr Lewis's political enemies, of "crushing a good man" in a witch hunt. "There's always a risk in these things," he said," but we are so determined to have people with no past that we will have no future."

Mr Stokes agrees: "I don't know where he's cut corners but he has that way with him. He's an action man, who doesn't spend long hours reflecting. He comes up with answers. It feels he has been completely stitched up."

The prospect of similar academies being set up in Luton, Southwark, Bristol and several northern cities is now at risk, he says. "It's so desperately sad and a real loss for the whole country."

Some of his fellow churchmen remain publicly silent but in private insist that "there is more to all this than merely cutting corners". The public inquiry into the whole affair which Mr Johnson promised has been scrapped now that his deputy has resigned. So now the full truth of whether Ray Lewis is a hero or a villain may never be known. Maybe he's a bit of both. Most of us are.