By Kirk Petersen
Six months after a government-sponsored review accused the Church of England of having become “a place where abusers could hide,” additional revelations about sexual abuse by priests continue to haunt the church.
In 30 years as vicar of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon, the Rev. Jonathan Fletcher, now 78, is alleged to have engaged in naked beatings, swimming, and massages, as well as other sexual misconduct, and bullying and “spiritual abuse.” Fletcher, who played a prominent role in the conservative evangelical movement, was a leader of the since-closed Iwerne Camp, a Christian camp that catered to participants from top boarding schools. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby worked at Iwerne as a young man in the 1970s, but has said he knew nothing about any abuse.
Fletcher was not named in the 154-page IICSA report issued in October 2020, although some of his offenses were public knowledge well before the report. IICSA — the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse — did name other priests who had been accused or convicted of sexual abuse.
Emmanuel Church Wimbledon is a “proprietary chapel,” which in the Church of England refers to an Anglican church that is financially independent of the C of E. As vicar at Emmanuel, Fletcher was an Anglican priest but not an employee of the Church of England, and thus was not considered in the IICSA report.
Instead, he became the subject of a separate 146-page report issued on March 23, 2021, by thirty-one:eight, an independent Christian safeguarding charity. The organization’s name refers to Proverbs 31:8, “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.”
The thirty-one:eight report focused also on the culture of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and its influence within the conservative evangelical community, saying:
The examination of cultural elements of ECW gives an insight into how abuse could occur and not be disclosed. …
ECW was and continues to be interconnected and have ongoing relationships with many organisations in the wider Conservative Evangelical (CE) constituency. An individual who holds a position of esteem in such networks holds a position of power, even if such power is not reflected in an official organisational position within the network.
The Review evidenced that JF was a man of great charisma and of significant influence in this sphere. … JF’s approval was prized and noted by many as essential for career progression in this constituency.
The “Independent Lessons-Learned Review Concerning Jonathan Fletcher and Emmanuel Church Wimbledon” called among other things for the resignations of unspecified leaders in the conservative evangelical community:
It is the opinion of the Reviewers that the aspects of unhealthy culture at ECW and more broadly across the affected CE constituency might only be addressed fully by those having played a key role in the establishment and maintenance of that culture to no longer enjoy the influence they have had to date (i.e. considering their positions and stepping down).
Also on March 23, four members of an “Independent Advisory Group” that worked with the review team simultaneously issued a separate lengthy report that some observers believe muddied the waters. The 3,300-word report, presented as a single web page, took a stronger stand against four named leaders in the conservative evangelical movement: “Right Revd Rod Thomas (of the Church of England), Revd William Taylor, Canon Vaughan Roberts (Chair of Proclamation Trust) and Revd Robin Weekes (of ECW [Emmanuel Church Wimbleton]).”
The report said they failed to act quickly enough when misconduct became apparent, and called on the four men to “explain their actions and open themselves up to scrutiny.”
Yet another complicated layer of information emerged May 11, when “a group of 7 survivors of Jonathan Fletcher” issued a 30-page open letter to the chair of the lessons-learned review. The unsigned letter praised the thirty-one:eight report, but excoriated the IAG document, which “has left us profoundly hurt and confused. It has left us dismayed and angry – because of the unjustified erosion of trust in leaders we know acted responsibly, promptly and kindly.”
Among other concerns, the survivors said of the four men named in the IAG report, “These are the men who exposed JF at personal cost, ended his ministry (when the Diocese of Southwark failed to) and provided care for us in our suffering. We thank God for them. We are deeply grieved by the way the IAG and the Twitter coalition have treated them.” Two of the men, Weekes and Roberts, stepped down in April from their positions within the Anglican evangelical Church Society.
The thirty-one:eight report includes an extensive timeline indicating that complaints of questionable behavior by Fletcher began nearly four decades ago. Fletcher became vicar of ECW in 1982, and that same year “2 people told about naked swimming with JF.”
But scrutiny of Fletcher did not begin publicly until 2017, when a massive scandal revealed that John Smyth, a prominent attorney and former chairman of trustees for the Iwerne camps, had beaten and physically abused boys at camp in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the Smyth accusers also made allegations against Fletcher, and the Diocese of Southwark revoked Fletcher’s permission to officiate (PTO) in February 2017.
Fletcher, who had retired as vicar of ECW in 2012, was still prominent in conservative evangelical circles. According to one accuser, “Fletcher continued to minister and preach among those he could convince of his innocence.” The secular news media began writing in 2019 about Fletcher’s behavior, leading to the launching of the lessons-learned review.