Top barrister accused of beating teenagers he met at Christian camps, dies

Evangelist lawyer John Smyth dogged in recent years by claims of historic abuse against teenagers

Tom Barnes
Thursday 30 July 2020 16:11
John Smyth is questioned by Channel 4 News' Cathy Newman over acts of violence

A British barrister embroiled in scandal surrounding allegations he physically abused boys that he met at Christian summer camps has died at his home in South Africa.

John Smyth QC is thought to have died aged 77 after suffering a suspected cardiac arrest at his house in Cape Town on Saturday, his family has announced.

"The official cause of death has not yet been made known‚ but the indicators are that it was a sudden heart attack following a heart procedure earlier in the week‚" their statement given to South Africa’s Sunday Times said.

"We ask that the family be left alone to grieve his passing."

Allegations against Mr Smyth arose in February 2017, following a Channel 4 News investigation into abuse at Christian holiday camps for public schoolboys run by the Iwerne Trust during the 1970s and 1980s.

A number of men came forward to claim they were recruited into a cult-like group by Mr Smyth at the camps as teenagers before receiving regular beatings, often so severe they bled.

The assaults were reportedly handed out to the boys in the evangelist’s shed as some form of penance for their sins, as part of his hard-line interpretation of the bible.

One of the boys reportedly attempted suicide as a result of the abuse, a story later recalled by Andrew Watson, now the Bishop of Guildford, who says he was also assaulted by Mr Smyth.

“Abusers espouse all theologies and none; and absolutely nothing that happened in the Smyth shed was the natural fruit of any Christian theology that I’ve come across before or since,” the bishop wrote at the time allegations were made public.

“It was abuse perpetrated by a misguided, manipulative and dangerous man, tragically playing on the longing of his young victims to live godly lives.”

A 1982 investigation by the Iwerne Trust, which was not made public until 2016, found more than 20 boys were physically abused by Mr Smyth with a cane at his home in Winchester, Hampshire.

However, the findings were not reported to the police and Mr Smyth had previously denied any wrongdoing.

The programme of abuse was thought to have been carried out during a time when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, had been working at the camps.

Mr Welby has insisted he had been unaware of the activity and said the Church of England should have done more to investigate the claims at the time.

Mr Smyth later moved to Zimbabwe, where he was also subject to claims of abusive behaviour towards young boys at similar Christian camps.

He faced charges that were later dismissed surrounding the mysterious death of a 16-year-old at one of the events in 1992.

Before his death, he had been running the Justice Alliance of South Africa, an organisation which sought to uphold socially conservative moral values in the country.

He had, during his legal career, represented activist Mary Whitehouse during her campaigns against social liberalism in the media, including in her successful private prosecution of the newspaper Gay News for blasphemy in 1977.

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