Patrick Sookhdeo is widely regarded as an expert on Islam and is the public face of Barnabas Aid International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide. He has also been convicted of sexual assault and has survived a ferocious legal battle with trustees of Barnabas Fund UK, who came to the conclusion that he was a liability to the charity he founded.
While he is capable of inspiring respect and loyalty among his staff and adherents, some have accused him of bullying, intimidation, vindictiveness and paranoia.
His survival at the heart of what is known as the 'Barnabas family' is a matter for some wonder. However, there are various factors which may explain it.
1. There has been a great reluctance among successive trustees of Barnabas charities and among senior Church and parachurch leaders to do anything to damage the work of Barnabas, which supports some of the most vulnerable Christians in the world and has a genuinely valuable ministry. There has been a widespread perception both within the Barnabas Fund and outside it that Sookhdeo was indispensible.
Furthermore, there is an institutional reluctance among Christians to do anything that might cause a public scandal. Some I spoke to cited 1 Corinthians 6:1, where Paul warns against Christians taking each other to secular courts. When this leads to repentance and acceptable restitution, this might be appropriate; when it allows behaviour that arguably brings the wider Church into disrepute – such as Sookhdeo's reinstatement after his assault conviction – the system has broken.
2. He has influential friends. Among Sookhdeo's supporters is former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who in July publicly praised BAI's rescue of 42 Syrian Christians and backed a petition urging more help for Christians in Iraq and Syria. The Barnabas charities work effectively in an area about which the Archbishop feels very strongly; Sookhdeo's conviction has evidently not persuaded him to redirect his support elsewhere. Carey's public support for Barnabas – and perceived support for Sookhdeo – is very valuable in lending him authority and respectability.
More troubling is the part played by the Charity Commission in all of this. The trustees wrote several letters expressing their concern at developments and asking for help. A reply seen by Christian Today seemed little more than a cut-and-paste statement of its procedures. It wrote to the trustees in March 2013 saying that it would not take action because attempts at mediation had not been taken up by the parties involved. It took no action when Rosemary Sookhdeo and Caroline Kerslake were reappointed as trustees as BFUK in September 2014, despite the Tomlin Order saying that they shouldn't serve again for three years. It allowed Sookhdeo's reappointment as International Director and trustee of Barnabas Aid International after his conviction.
I approached the Charity Commission to comment on the regulatory questions. It said that "the Commission has an open case and is looking at a number of issues. It is therefore inappropriate to comment any further at this stage."
This has not previously been reported.
3. He is at the heart of a network of charities connected to BFUK and BAI.
Linked in some way or other to Barnabas Aid International are more than 15 other charities and businesses. As well as the original Barnabas Fund, these include Servants Fellowship International (SFI), the River Centre Properties Ltd and River Centre Ltd, which relate to property in Tonbridge used as a conference centre, Pewsey Trading Company Limited and Sookhdeo Limited. SFI is the parent company of the Harvester and River Centre companies. Its source of income is not clear, but it expressed gratitude in its December 2013 report for "support from a major German donor, the Evangelische Landeskirche in Wuerttemberg". This church's pastor is SFI trustee Albrecht Hauser.
The other SFI trustees at the time were Patrick and Rosemary Sookhdeo, Caroline Kerslake and Hauser's wife Rosmarie.
These are names which appear frequently in the Sookhdeo stable of companies and charities. The Sookhdeos, Kerslake and Hauser are directors of Harvester Conferences; the Hausers and Kerslake of The Reconciliation Trust; Sookhdeo and Kerslake of River Centre Properties Limited. There is no suggestion that any of these charities or businesses are engaged in anything improper.
From everything I have learned during extensive research for these articles, Sookhdeo is a very able man – perhaps even a brilliant one – who has accomplished a great deal during his career. However, he appears also to have alienated and offended a great many people and his refusal to accept his guilt for the sexual assault is inexcusable.
Given the past reluctance of the Charity Commission to become involved and the support of his current trustees, his legal position appears reasonably secure. The brief statements from Global Connections and the Evangelical Alliance supplied to Christian Today are the only public criticisms from Christian bodies I have seen. For the wider Church the dilemma remains: how to express its feelings about Sookhdeo without damaging the Barnabas brand?
It is an extraordinary story. I am not sure it is over yet.
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