Mark Stibbe, a former vicar who lives in North Yorkshire, is among those to claim to have been abused by youth worker John Smyth, a one-time colleague of the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and who ran Christian holiday camps. As other victims waive their right to anonymity, here he tells his story in full for the first time to The Yorkshire Post.
ON my eighth birthday, my parents left me with my teddy bear and trunk on the gravel drive outside a country house – the prep school where I would spend nine months out of every 12 for the next five years.
I can still hear the tyres of their car as it pulled away outside. I can still smell the polish on the heavy oak inside. Above all, I can still feel the fear – the desperate realisation that I was abandoned and the terrifying shadow of the silver-haired teacher, standing beside me, whom I knew instinctively was neither kind nor safe.
That night he thrashed me with a cane in front of the rest of the new boys in my dormitory. The offence? Dropping a bag of marbles that my Dad had given me as a present, to soften the blow of our separation.
During the next two weeks, I was beaten three more times with a cane, twice in front of my peers (all wide-eyed and horrified at my plight), and once in the study, bending over a chair with an old red cushion that puffed dust with every stroke.
Thankfully, the master was dismissed by the school governors after a year. He left, but I remained, hugging my teddy under the bedsheets every night.
Five years later, I passed the entrance exam to the oldest public school in the country, Winchester College. By that time, I had grown used to my separation from Dad and Mum. It was just the way it was. “Big boys don’t cry”, or so I was told. Added to that, I was obsessed like everyone else with not being called “wet”.
In my final two years at Winchester College, I decided that I wanted to become a barrister. At that time, there was something of a Christian revival taking place in the school, with hundreds of pupils becoming Christians in a very short space of time.
At its height, an evangelical Christian barrister called John Smyth QC (later Mary Whitehouse’s advocate), started to develop close ties to some of the young converts. Although he had nothing at all to do with Winchester College, he lived nearby and invited those whom he particularly liked to Sunday lunch at his house.
Having suffered from the absence of a father for almost 10 years, I was particularly susceptible to his charms. Gathering me under his wing, he not only welcomed me to his home but also took me to court to observe him perform at a murder trial.
Then, when I was 17, this substitute father figure revealed a far darker side. Somehow he persuaded me, as he did at least 20 other boys at my school, that if I was to be truly holy, then I needed to have the sin beaten out of me – especially the “sin” of masturbation, about which he was fixated.
A few days later I found myself in the shed in the garden of John Smyth’s house, where he told me to remove my clothes.
He caned me so violently I was too shocked to scream.
It was an act of barbaric cruelty. That it was performed in the name of the kindest man in history, Jesus of Nazareth, was a contradiction that was totally lost on me at the time.
So it was that the end of my time at boarding school mimicked its beginnings – with brutal beatings at the hand of an abusive man.
For over 30 years, I kept this awful secret mostly to myself, until a long season of psychotherapy brought my boarding school pain to the surface. I dealt with it, thanks to the extraordinary insight and care of my therapist Lynne, and then wrote a book about it all called Home at Last.
Then, one day last November, a few months after my book came out, Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News contacted me and asked to speak off the record about John Smyth.
She told me that they had been given a tip-off about Smyth’s abuses, not just in the UK but in Zimbabwe, where he moved in 1984.
He had left the UK when my best friend at school had tried to commit suicide because of the bloody beatings (now numbering over 100 strokes a time, sometimes more).
This desperate act had forced the authorities at the Christian summer camp where Smyth had been a leader to investigate the barrister’s secret abuses.
I was overwhelmed when the programme was broadcast. For the first time in many years, I saw the eyes of the man who had abused me. I heard his voice again. I shuddered.
When my best friend told his traumatic story, I sobbed, just as he did. It turns out that big boys do cry after all.
Today, because of the success of my book Home at Last, I run a campaign dedicated to helping survivors to recover from the abandonment and abuse suffered at boarding school.
My wounds are slowly healing, as I look to the one Dad who will never abandon or abuse us – the loving heavenly Father in whose spiritual embrace I have found freedom from years of captivity.
For many others, the healing will only truly begin when the current police investigation is complete and Smyth explains the allegations that have been made by myself and others, including the Bishop of Guildford only this week.
Only then will his victims experience a restoration of all that was so violently ripped from our lives over three decades ago.
Dr Mark Stibbe lives in North Yorkshire. His book, Home at Last: Freedom from Boarding School Pain, is published by MD Publishing. Further details can be found at www.homeatlastcampaign.co.uk