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Northampton's Jesus Army votes to disband in wake of historic abuse claims

Website: Northampton Chronicle and Echo
Date: 28/05/2019
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Leaders of the Jesus Army - the Northampton-based religious sect variously described as a 'cult' since its launch 50 years ago - have voted to disband the church in the wake of an abuse scandal.

The news comes five years since the launch of Operation Lifeboat, a police operation looking into historical sex abuse at the 1969-formed Baptist movement.

In 2017, The Chronicle & Echo revealed there had been some 150 reports made of either sexual physical, religious or financial abuse at the church and that at least 40 people were pursuing legal action against it.

On Sunday, with the reputation of the Jesus Army 'badly damaged' and membership declining rapidly, its leadership voted to revoke the church's constitution.

In a statement released this morning, its spokesman Laurence Cooper, said: "The NLT (National Leadership Team) and the members of the JFC (Jesus Fellowship Church) recognise that, over a sustained period of time, there have been faults and failures in the Church that have had a profound impact on many people's lives.

"We are deeply sorry for, and appalled by the abuse that has taken place within Jesus Fellowship Church and the New Creation Christian Community (NCCC) and offer our heartfelt sympathy and unreserved apology to all those affected.

"Children and vulnerable people were entitled to expect full protection from harm. We acknowledge the pain many of those people continue to feel. As things have become clearer to us, we are grieved and deeply troubled." The Jesus Army was formed in Bugbrooke in 1969 by firebrand baptist minister Noel Stanton. Over the decades it swelled to some 3,500 members - a proportion of whom were encouraged to live in communal houses, such as the New Creation Farm in Nether Heyford.

Several of the abuse claims stemmed from people who had lived, worked and ploughed personal finances into the communes, where members had to adhere to a strict set of rules. Children were often beaten for 'minor transgressions', a former member told the Chron.

In 2004, the church took over the former art deco theatre in the Upper Mounts, renaming it the Jesus Centre.

But in 2017, the church's de-facto leader Mick Haines conceded that his predecessor Noel Stanton had a 'flawed character'. The Chron later revealed that many of the abuse claims related to Mr Stanton himself - who died in 2009.

Congregations that were part of the JFC will now become 'fully independent', according to today's statement.

"They will not be affiliated to a national church organisation and will be led by people who are appointed by their own members," said Mr Cooper.

"Some have already appointed interim leadership teams, comprising women and men who are part of the congregation. These local congregations will be responsible for every aspect of their function including finance, staffing, and safeguarding."

In 2013, the JFC invited people to make disclosures about their experiences of the church - with many coming forward to reveal they had been a victim of "pastoral abuse and bullying as well as financial, physical and sexual abuse," Mr Cooper continued.

"This information was passed to the police, who launched Operation Lifeboat, examining non-recent abuse in the JFC. As a result, a number of criminal cases were successfully prosecuted through the courts.

"The reputation of the Church has been badly damaged and the confidence of members of the Church was profoundly shaken. Alongside this, declining membership and the consequent slowdown in giving means that the national Church no longer has the resources to continue as it was.

"Following the disclosures process, the current National Leadership Team decided that they did not have the capacity or the desire to continue leading the JFC.

"Taking into account the scope of the problems they were facing, they did not believe anyone else could, or should, try and lead the organisation. The National Leadership Team, therefore, recommended to the members that the national JFC be dissolved - and that has now been approved by the members.

The church has now formed a redress scheme for those affected by the abuse under the Jesus Fellowship Community Trust.

Mr Cooper continued: "While the trustees have a legal obligation to provide for the welfare of current members of the Community Trust, they want to provide help and compensation for those who suffered abuse or poor treatment in the past. They are seeking to provide resources to help former and current members towards closure from the mistakes and painful experiences of the past.

"A working party - including victims and their representatives - is leading the development of this redress scheme. While we cannot undo the harm done, we hope that this can be of some help to those who feel they can engage with the scheme.

"We are committed to working with the Police and Social Services to ensure that all allegations of abuse that come to our attention are dealt with appropriately and encourage anyone with concerns to report them."