'Heartfelt and sober apology' over behaviour of Pioneer founder Gerald Coates

Gerald Coates died in 2022, before the review.

The Pioneer church network has issued a "heartfelt and sober apology" after an independent review concluded that late founder Gerald Coates' behaviour had fallen "significantly short of expected standards at the time".

Over 30 individuals participated in the review, led by Christian Safeguarding Services (CSS), into the conduct of Coates, who died in 2022.

The review was launched after concerns were raised about his behaviour following his death. 

It found a "consistent pattern of behaviour that falls significantly short of expected standards at the time", and said that personal boundaries were not respected.

Accounts from some participants in the review detailed "harmful experiences" and the report said that "some individuals appear to have been harmed emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, and attribute that to their contact with [Coates] and / or [Pioneer Trust]".

According to the report, concerns related to public prayer and prophecy over young men, most of whom were in their late teens to mid-twenties, and attempts by Coates to contact them after these public events. 

"It is important to note that the concern was not that [Coates] was behaving in a sexually inappropriate way, but rather that his conduct did not meet the standards expected at the time, that he was not respecting personal boundaries, and that his behaviour could be misunderstood as having a sexual motivation," the report said.

Particularly "concerning" was the "intensity and duration" of the prophecy and prayer times, which it was felt was "not in line with expectations", and the use of a "holy kiss" on the cheeck "which is not common in UK culture; particularly so when interacting with someone previously unknown to an individual".

Attempts to contact the young men would be done under the guise of offering spiritual mentorship. In some cases, Coates would attempt to contact young men through social media that he had never met in person.

"Once contact had been established, he would start very quickly to question them about their use of pornography, masturbation etc. He would ask detailed questions about the type of pornography and about their accompanying sexual activity," the report said.

"This would happen without invitation in a conversation that the young man believed related to the prophetic word that they had previously been given.

"On some occasions, Gerald apparently approached people indicating that he could be a father figure to them and that he believed God had called him to this."

While most of the reports concerned young adults, there were two or "possibly three as the age of one is unclear" who were in their mid-teens and one who was aged 12 to 13, who it appears was contacted directly by Coates via social media.

The report said: "This behaviour would, both now and at the time that it occurred, be regarded as a safeguarding concern that should have been raised with the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO)."

It notes that in light of his death, "it is impossible to judge motives and intentions" and that "particular care must be taken given that [Coates'] voice could not be heard".

Concerns about Coates' conduct were reported to Thirtyone:eight and the Pioneer Trust did act on the advice received, which led to Coates modifying his behaviour "to some degree".

"However, overall, the interventions were not as effective as would have been hoped," the report said. 

In light of the findings, Ness Wilson, leader of Pioneer's National Leadership Team, and Steve Clifford, Chair of the Board of Trustees, said they accepted the report and its findings, and apologised. 

"The review confirmed some things we already knew and revealed some things we didn't know, providing a much fuller picture for us," they said. 

"We wanted the review to help us listen and learn. CSS heard from over 30 individuals, most of whom reported being hurt and harmed by inappropriate and damaging ministry practices through their contact with Pioneer.

"To those respondents we want to thank them for their bravery in telling their stories and offer a heartfelt and sober apology. We are so sorry.

"We hope that having your story heard, believed, and validated – together with this apology and a commitment to implementing the report's recommendations – goes some way towards a measure of healing."

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, Thirtyone:eight's safeguarding helpline can be contacted 9am – 5pm, Monday – Friday on 0303 003 1111.