Damning report uncovers serious safeguarding failures at Jonathan Fletcher church

Jonathan Fletcher

The church formerly led by evangelical leader Jonathan Fletcher had an "unhealthy culture" that enabled abusive behaviours resulting in "profound" and "for some, ongoing harm", an independent report has concluded.

The long-awaited Lessons Learned Review into Fletcher, 78, and Emmanuel Church Wimbledon (ECW) was led by independent safeguarding charity Thirtyone:Eight, with its former chair Simon Plant and the University of Chester's Dr Lisa Oakley acting as reviewers.

The final report published on Tuesday is based on interviews with 98 people, many of them current or former members of ECW, the church led by Fletcher for 30 years before his retirement in 2012.

The review repeats many of the allegations already made public in media reports over the last two years, including accounts of naked massages and saunas, beatings, and forfeits like smacking with a gym shoe, and ice baths.

There was a "pattern" of an "escalation of behaviours" that was "reflective of the grooming process".

But one participant also described a "serious incident of a sexual nature" which has now been reported to the authorities.

"One participant reported that JF told him to perform a sex act in front of him and when he did not, JF performed the act instead," the report states.

"This behaviour demonstrates a gross abuse of power and in the opinion of the reviewers is far beyond anything which can be deemed acceptable or appropriate from a minister in a position of power, trust and responsibility.

"Further, it raises a question regarding whether this would be regarded as misconduct in a public office.

"We conclude that very few, if any, knew about this incident prior to 2017 [when his Permission to Officiate, or PTO, was withdrawn by Southwark Diocese].

"We state for the record that JF has never been charged with or found guilty of any offence."

Elsewhere in the report, participants told of "manipulative, controlling or coercive behaviour and bullying" by Fletcher, with some using the term "spiritual abuse" to describe their experiences.

There were "repeated" references to "harsh treatment, humiliation and fear". Other accounts detailed a "minimisation of harm" and instances of "intimidation, being put under pressure and passive aggressive behaviour", with Fletcher being described as a "benign dictator".

"Fear of JF and fear of his power and reach were clear from many as were fear of others still in positions of authority in the wider [conservative evangelical] community," the report said.

"This required repeated reassurances of anonymity from the Reviewers for many individuals to feel able to share."

Fletcher did not respond to invitations to participate in the review and has not commented publicly on the final report.

He has publicly apologised for some of the behaviours, telling The Telegraph last year that he was "deeply, deeply sorry for the people I've harmed". He has also claimed that any interaction was "totally consensual and non-sexual".

After receiving allegations about his behaviour, the Diocese of Southwark revoked his PTO in 2017 and passed the information on to police, who decided against further action.

But Tuesday's report states: "Whether or not these behaviours were deemed to be consensual, the Reviewers conclude that the behaviours are completely unacceptable for someone in a position of spiritual authority and constitute an abuse of spiritual authority and power, falling far short of the expectations, obligations and duties of those in Holy Orders."

The reviewers also conclude that the spiritually abusive and bullying behaviours were happening in "plain sight" and that the church leadership took "little or no action" to address them despite it being "clear" they were aware of them prior to 2017.

The report describes a culture where "leadership on a pedestal" was "prized", and where Fletcher held "relational and institutional power" due to the combination of his "personality and influence".

This culture "enabled" these behaviours to occur "without scrutiny" and "be unlikely to be identified as harmful", investigators said.

"It also facilitated a context in which disclosures could be minimised with rationales of protecting the gospel, protecting JF, protecting [the evangelical camp] Iwerne, protecting the wider constituency and protecting the successes that had been achieved," the report said.

The reviewers said it was significant that many of those harmed had developed a spiritual relationship with Fletcher through the now defunct Iwerne camps as young adults.

"It is important to note that, for many participants, their relationship with JF began at Iwerne and this context is essential to understand how the behaviours detailed occurred and were either not disclosed or not responded to when disclosed," it said.

The report further concluded that there are "ongoing" safeguarding concerns relating to Fletcher.

"The behaviours and lack of recognition by JF of the harm caused evidenced in some of the documentation reviewed, lead to the conclusion that there are significant and ongoing safeguarding concerns related to JF," it says.

"These include within mentoring relationships or ministerial activities. The Reviewers recognise that Permission to Officiate (PTO) has been removed and therefore JF cannot any longer conduct certain aspects of official ministry.

"However, there is a need for clarity that the significant and ongoing safeguarding concerns relate to all aspects of Christian influence and ministry, including, but not limited to, personal work, pastoral care and mentoring."

Regarding safeguarding at ECW, the report cites a number of failures that allowed the abuse to take place, including a "distinct lack of policy, process and procedure", a "celebration of informality", the "lack of value placed on safeguarding", and "lack of effective accountability".

These, the report said, had "undermined confidence in being able to disclose or raise concerns".

"This, combined with JF's influence on careers and the culture of ECW, led to a situation in which it was difficult to disclose, raise concerns or respond appropriately to concerns that were raised," it said.

But the report also goes on to express concern about the "continued behaviour" of Fletcher "involving the use of power and influence to critique and undermine his successor's ministry", and the "poor working relationships and mistrust" between ECW and the Diocese of Southwark which meant that concerns could not adequately be raised either within the church or at diocesan level.

"The evidence suggests people were left in a position which effectively silences them and left a void in which concerns could not really be raised, taken seriously or actioned," the reviewers said.

The report adds that "significant progress" has been made by ECW in addressing the historical shortcomings in culture, accountability and safeguarding arrangements, but that further development is needed.

"It is vital that ECW continue to consider the role of culture in ensuring people fully engage with safeguarding arrangements and to address any negative perceptions of safeguarding still in existence," the report said.

"It is recognised that ECW have made significant steps to addressing cultural issues since the disclosures occurred, however concerns remain about some persistent aspects of culture.

"ECW need to continue to reflect on the cultural elements [...] that allowed behaviour to occur and not be disclosed.

"Changing culture is a lengthy process. If these aspects of unhealthy culture are not fully addressed then it is likely that any learning and improvement from the implementation of recommendations will be limited in its effectiveness.

"There also needs to be reflection on the impact of external cultures on these aspects of unhealthy culture at ECW."

Commenting on the report, current ECW minister Rev Robin Weekes said: "We remain devastated by the hurt caused by the abuse of our former minister Jonathan Fletcher. We want to say with the utmost sincerity how profoundly sorry we are for every life which has been adversely affected in whatever way by his actions.

"We chose to commission this report with the desire to gain an independent, honest and detailed view of what occurred and to learn what we must do to change and create a healthier and safer culture going forward.

"We have made the decision to publish the review in full to survivors, the public and the media, not holding anything back from their scrutiny, hoping that by being honest about our past failings this might be the first step in rebuilding trust with those who have been hurt by Jonathan Fletcher, and also by us.

"We believe that commissioning and publishing this report in its entirety is best practice and consistent with our sincere and on-going commitment to put the interests of the survivors first.

"It will also enable us to learn from our mistakes and keep striving toward our goal as a church, which is to better practice and demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ who we proclaim."

In a lengthier statement, the elders and leaders of ECW collectively apologised for their "failure as a church to respond to the signs we did see" and for allowing Fletcher to be "untouchable".

They also apologised for their "arrogance" in being "proud that we had a minister who had a national and international profile".

"We enjoyed being a well-known church with a good reputation. We didn't believe something like this could happen to us," they said.

"We apologise unreservedly for all we have got wrong and publicly commit to change, and seek forgiveness from all those who have been hurt, damaged or affected by our failures."

In its own statement, Thirtyone:Eight welcomed the apologies from ECW and a commitment to taking action on the recommendations in the report.

"It is encouraging to see the efforts already being made to convene an implementation group for this purpose, guided by some external support and accountability," it said.

"The report speaks for itself in painting a very concerning picture of how the abuse of positions of power and influence can have such a profound and damaging impact for so many.

"We hope that the lessons learned through this process will not only be taken forward by Emmanuel Church, but all others who are able to see the potential for the issues raised to exist within their own spheres of influence.

"Whilst individual responsibility must be taken for acts of omission and commission, including a need to reflect, lament and repent, we must also commit to collectively standing against any and all forms of abuse and harm perpetrated within the Church. We hope and pray that this report will assist in this process."

As part of its response to the report, ECW is providing free therapeutic support to anyone who has been affected by the allegations, which is being independently facilitated by Thirtyone:eight to help ensure anonymity for all those accessing the services. For further information about the therapeutic support fund or to make an application for funding, Thirtyone:Eight can be contacted confidentially at: ecwsupportfund@thirtyoneeight.org