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Jesus Army abuse 'covered-up by church leaders', report claims

Website: BBC News
Date: 05/08/2020
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Abuse of women and children was covered-up by senior members of a disgraced religious sect, according to a report leaked to the BBC.

All five surviving leaders of the now-defunct Jesus Army were found to have colluded with sexual offenders through their handling of complaints.

The report followed an inquiry commissioned by the church in 2017.

The Jesus Fellowship Church Trust (JFCT) declined to comment when approached by the BBC.

Last year it apologised to anyone "who experienced harm in the past" and urged victims to contact police.

The Jesus Army was a cult-like religious movement that sprang up in Northamptonshire in the 1970s and established a sprawling community of houses.

Last year it dissolved after the BBC revealed hundreds of former members were seeking damages for alleged sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

Ten people from the church have been convicted of sex offences.

The new report focused on the actions of the so-called Apostolic Group of senior church leaders over the past two decades.

While the report did not identify the men, the BBC can name them as Ian Callard, John Campbell, Mike Farrant, Mick Haines and Huw Lewis.

Mr Haines became the sect's principle leader after the death of its founder Noel Stanton in 2009.

In the summary of her 800-page final report, independent investigator Vicki Lawson-Brown said all five leaders "must take responsibility for their inaction".

She said women were treated as "domestic servants", which placed them and children at higher risk of abuse.

There was a culture of "blaming victims" and "reinstating disgraced leaders", her review found.

Describing one "significant case", she said all of the men, by their failure to act, protected a convicted paedophile who had been allowed to continue in his role as an elder by Mr Stanton.

In spite of further complaints against the man, he "remained a risk within a community household until 2016 when social services threatened to take action".

The report recommended further investigations into a number of other areas, including sexual, spiritual and financial abuse, as well the "inappropriate punishment" of children.

What was the Jesus Army?

The Jesus Army, or Jesus Fellowship as it was formally known, was an ultra-evangelical sect, founded in a small chapel in the Northamptonshire village of Bugbrooke in 1969.

It attracted thousands of members, from homeless drug addicts to devout Christian families, many of whom lived together in close-knit, rural communes.

Members were put to work on the church's farms or businesses and forced to hand over money and possessions.

Surviving members have described an intense, bullying regime, in which children were severely disciplined and forced to sit through long worship sessions involving speaking in tongues and exorcisms.

In 2019 the BBC exposed allegations of abuse on a "prolific scale" including rapes, "brainwashing" and the brutal or sexualised beating of young children by groups of men.

Forty-three people who were active in the Church have been named as alleged perpetrators, including founder and firebrand, Noel Stanton.

After his death in 2009, the Church handed "disclosures" of sexual offences against Mr Stanton and others to police.

In 2017 the five senior leaders known as the Apostolic Group were asked to step down, pending an inquiry into the cover-up of abuse allegations.

The BBC has spoken to more than 25 former members of the Jesus Army who claimed to have experienced abuse within community houses. Many said their complaints to leadership were ignored.

One woman, who asked not to be named, said Mr Farrant, who was known as "Rockfast," ignored her claims in 2006 that an active church elder had sexually assaulted children in the 1980s.

Mr Campbell, known as "Perceptive", was the church's official spokesman, its head of safeguarding and the elder of Festal Grange in Pattishall.

The BBC can reveal that a gardener who stayed at the Grange was a convicted paedophile and went on to sexually assault three boys in the cellar over a seven-year period.

Neither Mr Farrant nor Mr Campbell replied to our request for comment on the allegations.

Although the Jesus Army has closed, its scattered congregations have formed small, independent churches. About 180 people still live in communal houses.

Over the past year the JFCT has been disposing of properties and assets totalling tens of millions of pounds.

It is expected some of the funds raised will be used to compensate victims.

Chairman of the Jesus Fellowship Survivors Association, which represents about 800 alleged victims, Erin Woodger, said compensation would help but would not "repair or make up for the abuse these people have suffered".

He said many had nightmares and could not work.

"It was living in that regime, being controlled, being beaten, being demeaned on a daily basis, and having no terms of reference, that has been most profoundly damaging," he said.

Mr Woodger said following the revelation of the abuse allegations the church suffered "huge financial damage" with the loss of hundreds of thousands of pounds in charitable donations.

He said the BBC's coverage "helped to bring out the truth, but they're still trying to cover it up, and make out things weren't that bad".

All five members of the Apostolic Group were interviewed under caution by Northamptonshire Police last year.

The force said it had "identified concerns around poor leadership and a lack of understanding of safeguarding".

However, no evidence was found of criminal offences.

None of the men replied to the BBC's approaches for comment.