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Jesus Army The phoney church that preyed on kids, beat them with sticks and sexually abused boys… in Northampton

Website: The Sun
Date: 18/07/2019
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ANNA sobs as she breaks a stick from a bush and hands it to the stern-faced man standing beside her – knowing he will use it to beat her.

As a young girl growing up in the Jesus Army, regular beatings dished out by the Elders of the commune had been part of her life from the moment she could walk.

But this was not a cult in a far-flung part of the world, but a radical religious sect in Northampton - which was only shut down in May this year.

Set up by former Baptist Noel Stanton in 1973, the Jesus Army followed a strict set of rules which banned toys, sugar, sweets, TV and all the trappings of a normal childhood.

And in a sinister creed issued by the church, Elders were told to “Beat Adam [sin] out of a child by the age of seven.”

At its peak in the early 2000s the evangelical group – also known as the Jesus Fellowship Church – had over 2,500 members living in communes in Northamptonshire and around the country.

Children were distanced from their biological parents and raised by all the adults – known as Brothers and Sisters – who were all free to “discipline” them.

Boys and girls were separated and women wore long skirts and hair because showing ankles and ear was "sinful".

Kids as young as four were made to do hard labour in the fields, birthdays and Christmas were not celebrated, sports were banned and even playing was forbidden.

Homeless and vulnerable men were picked up and used as slave labour, boys and young men were sexually abused by leaders while girls were at the mercy of their male "superiors" and sexually assaulted by adults and other children.

The Jesus Army is now being wound down after a flood of allegations of sexual and physical abuse, as well as emotional and financial abuse.

Five men have been convicted over the sexual assault of 11 boys, between the 1970s and 1990s, and police are investigating over 200 complaints of different types of abuse.

Solicitor David Greenwood, who is dealing with ongoing cases, said the "cult" was a "totalitarian regime" laid down by Noel Stanton which deprived children of their childhood.

We spoke to Anna*, beaten from two and told she was possessed, Adam, lured in as a homeless teenager, used as slave labour and sexually assaulted, and Maria*, forced to work in frozen fields and expose her body to adults at 12.

'Beaten for scratching an itch at four'

Anna’s mum was the single mother of a nine-year-old girl when she fell pregnant for a second time in her twenties.

Facing family pressure to have an abortion, she was attracted to the Jesus Army’s non-judgemental message of love – and they welcomed her with open arms.

After the birth Anna, her older sister and her mum moved in to Sheepfold Grange, a sprawling manor house in the Northampton countryside owned by the Church and shared by around twenty members.

The girls were separated from their mother and were “parented” by Brothers and Sisters deemed appropriate by the Elders.

“My big sister remembers them beating me at two," she says.

“They made you choose your own knobbly stick off the bush and I picked a whip-like branch with loads of knots on it, which wasn't a good choice.

“That stick hurt so much I climbed on top of the wardrobe where it was kept, and broke the knobbles off - but I got a beating for that too.

“I remember thinking it was good if it just burned, if it just felt hot. But the beatings that felt like a cut, like real pain were the worst.”

After school and working in the field, the children attended nightly meetings – known as agape (pronounced ag-a-pay) – where members prayed, chanted and spoke in tongues.

“When I was four, I was sitting in agape wearing a onesie and it was really itchy. One Brother who hated me from a very small age, said, ‘Stop scratching. That's the devil.’

“I was desperately trying not to scratch but I was wiggling around so I got beaten.

“My mum was constantly told I was possessed by the devil. One of the Brothers would put his hand on top of my head, keeping me at arm's length and speaking in tongues.

"I remember desperately trying to wiggle and escape, but I couldn't because he was just pushing on my head."

Picking up homeless waifs and strays to bring home

Worldly possessions – including toys, books and radios – were banned, as was all music other than hymns and swimming, either for exercise or pleasure.

Children were forbidden to play with school friends, banned from school trips and had to come home for lunch.

Snacks, including bananas, were banned and only meals from Goodness Foods, the central food store run by the Jesus Army was allowed.

“We weren’t starved,” says Anna. “There would be three meals a day, usually meat, boiled potatoes and vegetables, but it was absolutely vile and you had to eat every bit.”

A sexist hierarchy meant that men were considered elite and the women and children worked on the farmland, cooked and cleaned.

“Mum was bottom of the pile because she was a single mother and was seen as a sinner,” says Anna.

“I don’t remember seeing Mum much but when I did she looked downtrodden and sad.”

Even as a small child, Anna was sent out to London and Birmingham aboard the Jesus Army bus, to evangelize and recruit new members, particularly the homeless.

“I remember playing in their cardboard boxes," she says. “They were so accepting and nice, unlike the people I lived with.

“We would pick up homeless people, mentally ill people and they’d get in the van and come home with us.

“There was no vetting because only God can judge – even if they were a paedophile.”

Anna – who has only recently started therapy – says she doesn’t remember if she was sexually abused and she has never spoken to her sister about her experiences, although she remembers her "shaking and crying” in bed.

Her older sister left when she was 15 but it was a couple of years later - when Anna was eight - before her mum found the courage to follow.

Anna had argued with an Elder at the meal table and was about to get another beating when her mum pulled her away.

“It was the first time in my life I'd called out to my mum and she’d saved me. We left the next day.”

After escaping the strict environment of the commune to live with her gran in Northampton, Anna says she went "wild" and spent her early teens years doing drugs and petty crime, before falling pregnant at 16.

Now a settled mum-of-three, Anna says she has friends who have been destroyed by their time in the Jesus Army but says she was "saved" by the birth of her oldest daughter.

"I see myself as lucky because I have got a strong mindset," she says. "Otherwise it would have broken me."

'Elders had wandering hands and forced me to strip naked in clothes store'

Adam McLeod was 19 and homeless when he joined the community after meeting an Elder at a party.

Having lost his job, and been thrown out by his mum, he was sofa surfing and was invited to New Creation Farm, where Stanton lived.

“The culture was to hug everyone, to show them how much you love them,” he says. “No one's judging you and it just felt amazing.

“That drew me in and they took advantage of my vulnerability.”

Noel took to Adam immediately, inviting him to move into the farm.

Although the founder died in 2009, before the abuse allegations surfaced, some survivors have claimed he was involved in the sexual abuse of young men and other leaders have since been prosecuted.

Karl Skinner was recently given a suspended prison sentence for inappropriate behaviour with a young boy, and Alan Carter was sentenced to three years in prison for sex acts on a boy aged between 14 and 16 in the 1990s.

And Adam says the culture of “love” soon turned into something more sinister.

“The hugs began to cross lines and there was a lot of inappropriate touching,” he says. “I was young and good looking and I had so many advances from the leaders, even in the prayer meetings.

“One guy always came in for a hug and then his hands would wander.

“It was a difficult situation. I didn't get confrontational and say ‘Don't touch me.’ I would go along with it and then avoid them.

“I didn't tell anyone at the time, because I was very confused."

As so many boys were living at the farm, Adam was made to share a single bed every night. He also recalls ritual humiliation, including making him strip naked in front of them when he needed new clothes.

'Used as slave labour and trapped by financial control'

On joining the commune, members surrendered all their worldly goods and handed full financial control over to the church.

But, in the three years he was there, Adam claims the group financially abused him, using him as slave labour and not paying his debts.

“They promise to take away your financial burdens, which was a dream for me as I had debts,” he says.

“But I got into a mess because they never kept their promise. I had a car on finance which ended up being repossessed because they never made a payment. The same went for other financial bills.”

Adam was made to work fulltime in two businesses for no pay.

“Because you have no money, you don't have any freedom,” he says. “They controlled everything.

“You eat what you're given. I got a lift to and from work every day and they’d bring in my lunch. I was so hungry that I would sneak down to the stockroom and steal energy bars.

“Because you are not earning, you're not able to save any money to escape.

“I took pride in my appearance and they stripped that away. I was wearing disgusting hand-me-downs and haircuts were done in house and were hideous."

Desperate and unhappy, Adam got back in touch with his mum who finally came to take him home in the middle of the night.

Now a property manager, the 35-year-old says his experience has left permanent damage.

“I find it hard to trust people,” he says. “It ruined my confidence.”

'Banned from closing the bathroom door at 12'

Another survivor, Maria*, recalls spending Christmas doing back-breaking work on the farm as a 13-year-old, pulling potatoes from frozen ground from dawn until after dark.

She was also sent away from her parents to live at another site, New Creation Farm, when she was 12 after a nurse of 30 took a “special interest” in her.

“She showered me with letters and cards and regularly telephoned me,” she says.

“When I went to stay at the farm, in a cottage that just had women living in it, I was informed that if I went to the toilet I had to leave the door open, and if I had a bath I had to let others come into the bathroom.

“I found this humiliating but was powerless to protest or do anything about it - I was just a child and no one would listen.

“They never sexually abused me but I was sexually exposed and I’m certain that was for the sexual gratification of some.”

Pensions left short through financial abuse

The church’s financial abuse has had long-term repercussions for one couple – Ian and Jeannie Johnson.

Ian joined the church in 1973 after Stanton asked him to help him establish their food business, Goodness Foods.

But, after marrying fellow church member Jeannie, who ran the church’s baking business, he became increasingly disillusioned over financial irregularities.

The couple left in 1984, after having children, but 35 years on Jeannie is still paying the price.

As the church failed to pay national insurance for their workers, Jeannie’s pension has been left £1000 a year short.

Now living in Crete, the couple have been left struggling to cope with medical bills.

In the wake of the assault allegations in 2013, a “redress and truth” scheme was set up by the Jesus Fellowship Community Trust and counselling is being offered to those who suffered abuse.

But Ian says they have ignored his complaint.

“They are saying they cannot help with people already retired,” he says. “And as a registered charity for helping the needy with a boasted £56m worth of assets I find it morally wrong.”

Many of those affected have come together through the Jesus Fellowship Survivors Association, a growing network of ex-members and services, which offers support and attempts to help them seek compensation.

*Names changed to protect the identity of the interviewee