Link : https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/jesus-army-growing-up-abuse-things-happened-sisters-friend-1907043
One man recounts the lasting impact of a childhood spent in the Christian sect, as victims are finally offered compensation
A cancer diagnosis at the age of 12 may have been the best thing that ever happened to Alastair Barr*. Thirty years ago, the nine months he spent being treated in hospital afforded him his first ever reprieve from the Jesus Army – the religious sect that he had been born into, where sexual, financial and psychological abuse were regularly doled out to the devoted. It took those months in hospital to “change my view of what I’d been brought up in”, he says now. It was the moment he understood that the beatings and emotional bullying he was subjected to were not normal.
That realisation first kicked in at the outset of treatment, when a hospital consultant told him that the views of the Jesus Army may be endangering his health. “He was concerned the church didn’t want me to have chemotherapy, because they felt that prayer would heal me,” Barr says.
By the time he returned to the family home he shared with his parents, two sisters and a revolving cast of worshippers in the village of Bugbrooke, Northamptonshire, he was able to see life within the sect in a new light. Evil seemed to be in the lifeblood of the place. “It was an abusive environment,” he says. “Things happened to my sisters when I was there; things happened to a lot of my friends.”
And yet until then, beyond whispers, little of this had ever been discussed between children or parents. That time away, says Barr, “protected me”. His return was the moment when he saw the abuse and misery for what it was, and resolved to cut ties at the first opportunity.
Three decades on, Barr and his fellow Jesus Army victims are hoping they will finally see justice. Following a police investigation in 2015, Operation Lifeboat, the organisation was dissolved in 2019. And in September a compensation scheme opened for its survivors, seeking to right the wrongs of what amounted to decades of child cruelty.
The Jesus Army’s leader was Noel Stanton, a Baptist pastor. Inspired by the Christian charismatic movement of the 60s and 70s, he set up the Jesus Fellowship in Bugbrooke in 1969, and its campaigning wing, the Jesus Army, in 1987. At its peak in 2007 it had more than 3,500 members across the UK. Many members lived in communal houses, worked tirelessly for the church, and were told to devote their lives – and every penny they had – to its mission. The church drove multicoloured buses around to drum up membership, and held an annual Jesus Day gospel event in Trafalgar Square.
“Every night, every day of the weekend was taken up with church activities,” Barr recalls of his childhood. There were meetings each evening, and fruit and potatoes to pick for members’ meals. At school, worshippers were called “Jesus freaks”, and told they belonged to a “cult”. Members dressed in Amish-style clothing, were forbidden to watch television and were not allowed to join school sports teams, or go on trips.
School breaks provided no respite either, with children sent out to work in the church’s businesses or to “holiday school”, where lessons would be run by other church elders. “I used to run away quite frequently from that. There was a lot of corporal punishment,” Barr, now 42, remembers – he says “rodding”, where children were hit with a birch stick, was a common method.
Cruelty was meted out by Stanton and a number of the elders he had placed at the church’s helm. “Everything was controlled,” Barr says. “If you went away from what they would tell you to do, there was a fear you would be condemned to hell, that you’d be shunned.”
When Barr’s parents had joined the Jesus Army in its early days, its ideals were “quite hippy-ish”, Barr says. “Living together, building businesses together, sharing things. It was quite idealistic, quite innocent.” Members ate, prayed and slept together, working to contribute to the common purse.
But as Stanton and co swelled their ranks with young worshippers, a “climate of fear” brewed. “People got into positions of power, which were not challenged… And what that then breeds is people having power over people, and people abusing that power,” Barr says.
The pedestal on which Stanton sat in the eyes of Jesus Army members meant that the leader’s actions were not challenged, and “an unhealthy affection towards boys” was allowed to persist, Barr adds.
The church – and with it, Stanton’s power – was growing; by the late 80s, there were 40 large Jesus Army-owned households and smaller dwellings in the area, accommodating 798 residents. The church had bought an imposing former Anglican rectory and made it their hub, renaming it New Creation Hall.
Around that time Stanton became convinced that God had told him there was going to be a traitor within their ranks. Fingers were pointed at Barr, giving him the “continual feeling of being rubbished as a child; that you were a sinner, that you would be going to hell if you didn’t abide by the rules of the church.”
Increasingly, Barr understood that the way the family were treated wasn’t right. But getting through to his parents then was a non-starter. His father, a leader in one of the church’s food divisions, had been given an ultimatum – to sell their house to the Jesus Army, or lose his job. And so he did, below market value, giving the money to the church, and moving into another property it owned, on which he had to pay to rent.
As he grew older, Barr refused to echo his parents’ blind devotion – and on finishing his A-levels at 18, was given the choice of being baptised as a full member, or excommunicated. He chose the latter, and was given two weeks and a few hundred pounds – “which I had to fight for” – to begin a new life alone.
A friend had moved to Birmingham, so he followed. “It was a massive shock to my whole life – financially, socially,” he says of suddenly living without the church’s constraints. After such a sheltered upbringing, freedom brought a host of new problems. “I got into all sorts of scrapes,” he says, recalling the years of drugs and partying throughout his twenties and thirties. Barr now has a 14-year-old daughter with a former partner, but says he has struggled to maintain romantic relationships as a result of what he went through in Bugbrooke.
Ties had been all but severed with his parents, as he overcompensated for the strictures of his childhood. But a decade ago, he heard that they had been contacted by the head of Northamptonshire police. The force was investigating reports of Jimmy Savile targeting vulnerable children, and Barr’s time in hospital meant his name had surfaced. There was no link, but the news was enough to “send me back into a whole spiral, having to think about the time I was ill, but also my childhood, my upbringing and experiences,” he says.
Around the same time, his youngest sister, 15 years his junior, was going through Jesus Army-induced horrors of her own, living in a communal house where the elders would routinely abuse inhabitants. She told their parents, and it proved to be “the straw that broke the camel’s back”, finally kickstarting the family’s parting of ways with the church to which they had given most of their lives.
Stanton had died in 2009, with other leaders stepping into the breach. But abuse allegations persisted, and Barr – having by now trawled through his traumatic childhood memories and been left wanting answers – asked the church to open a dialogue between officials and members, so that they could discuss what had gone on. More accusations were becoming public, yet after rounds of circuitous emails, its new leaders “disengaged with the whole process”.
It wasn’t until further harrowing testimonies from survivors detailing bullying, financial, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, were passed on to Northamptonshire police that the dial finally began to shift. Operation Lifeboat – an investigation into historical sex abuse at the sect’s hands – was launched in 2015 alongside an independent safeguarding review. By 2017, senior leaders had been suspended, and convictions were finally coming: Nigel Perkins, a former Jesus Army member, pleaded guilty to three counts of indecent assault and two counts of gross indecency with a child under the age of 14, with the court hearing how he “opportunistically” targeted young boys.
The following year, Alan Carter was given a three-year sentence for seven charges of indecent assault against a male and one charge of buggery. At least 11 convictions were brought, for other crimes including abuse during a religious gathering in a victim’s home, and sexual touching while sitting on an alleged perpetrator’s lap.
Some 200 claims including rape, “brainwashing” and sexualised beating had been made by 2019, leaving the Jesus Army, which had then rebranded as the Jesus Fellowship, to vote on its future. Citing its “badly damaged” reputation and dwindling membership figures, its constitution was revoked, and the organisation was dissolved.
Only last year did the trust who had taken over management of the church begin a redress scheme, seeking to rectify the “systematic failures” detailed in nearly 300 claims against 125 leaders, and counting. And, almost a year later, survivors like Barr are finally able to apply.
The trust says it is “deeply sorry for, and appalled by the abuse that occurred in the Jesus Fellowship Church”, and hopes that the redress scheme can provide victims with some solace.
For Barr, beyond financial remuneration, there must be recognition of the lasting effects many are still grappling with. “People got into debt; people have not been able to get themselves on even footing in their lives… A number of my peers have not been able to hold a job down, and have had significant emotional and mental health issues for the whole of their lives,” he says.
“The procrastination [and] reluctance of the Jesus Army to meaningfully engage with addressing the abuse over these past seven years has hindered myself and many of my peers to properly move on as it has remained unresolved until now on many levels.”
Solicitor Kathleen Hallisey, representing Barr and other victims applying to the scheme, adds that compensation is about more than financial redress and is tantamount to “modern day justice… [and] people are entitled to that justice”.
Barr is uncompromising in his demands for “proper answers, acknowledgement and closure”. After decades of strain, he is now on better terms with his parents, who “find it hard to admit to themselves that their whole life has been a facade”. And he is trying to be open with his daughter about what he went through, as “it’s important for her to know,” he says.
Above all, he says, after 42 years, the least the Jesus Army’s victims deserve is to be able to “properly move on”.