May 16, 2023

Internal church probe into Christian 'cult' leader not trusted by victims

Rev Canon Mike Pilavachi stepped back from CofE ministry while an internal investigation into allegations about his behaviour is ongoing.

The Telegraph
May 13, 2023

Victims of a Christian youth festival founder accused of spiritual abuse are calling for an independent investigation into his behaviour, warning they “don’t trust the church to mark its own homework”.

It was announced in April that Rev Canon Mike Pilavachi, founder of Soul Survivor Watford church and its namesake youth festivals, which attracted tens of thousands of teenagers from around the world, was stepping back from Church of England ministry.

The move came amid an ongoing internal investigation and following allegations revealed by this newspaper accusing him of forming inappropriate intimate relationships with young people.

The Telegraph revealed details of the allegations surrounding the 65-year-old leading evangelical preacher, as victims spoke out for the first time claiming he ran “a cult” in which young men were encouraged to receive full-body massages on his bed and engage in wrestling matches.

‘A cruel game’

They also claimed that they suffered psychological torment and spiritual abuse in what they described as “a cruel game” at the hands of their vicar who they say “left a trail of broken, young male adults scattered all around the world”.

The Diocese of St Albans and the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) are currently leading an internal investigation into Rev Canon Pilavachi. However, it has since emerged that some of the allegations against him are more recent. It is understood that the allegations span at least three decades and some are as recent as 2020.

Now, victims have spoken out, claiming that they do not trust the church to conduct its own investigation.

‘Require transparent investigation’

Some of the victims have released a statement through Richard Scorer, head of abuse law and public inquiries at the law firm Slater and Gordon, who is advising them. It said: “The days when churches could plausibly investigate themselves and mark their own homework are long gone.

“The allegations against Mike Pilavachi are extremely serious. They clearly require comprehensive, independent and transparent investigation, covering both the allegations themselves and, crucially, the institutional response to those allegations, both within Soul Survivor and across the wider Church of England.

“Given the network of connections between Soul Survivor and the Church of England, we do not believe that any Church of England body, whether the Diocese of St Albans or the NST, can plausibly conduct an independent, objective and transparent investigation at this time.

“There are simply too many connections between the Church of England and Soul Survivor, both at diocesan and national level, and too many potential conflicts of interest, for survivors to have confidence in the independence and transparency of any church-run investigation.”

The statement concluded by calling on the Church of England and the NST to accept that a trusted independent body should be appointed to conduct this investigation, and to engage with survivors in the selection of such an agency.

Gathering accolades

The Soul Survivor summer festivals in the UK ran from 1993 to 2019 in the UK, and attracted around 30,000 young people from all over the world.

As recently as 2020, Rev Canon Pilavachi was gathering accolades from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, who awarded him at Lambeth Palace for his “outstanding contribution to evangelism and discipleship amongst young people”. That same year he was also appointed an MBE in the New Year Honours for his services to young people.

Yesterday Paul Martin, founder of the US branch of Soul Survivor, became the first whistleblower to go on the record claiming that Soul Survivor leaders in the UK were aware of allegations surrounding Rev Canon Pilavachi as early as 2002 and that concerns had again been reported to them in 2004. He also raised concerns about the Church of England conducting its own internal investigation.

“I believed and I assumed that the leadership in the UK was dealing with this,” he said.

“I was told the allegations/behaviours were being looked at and I expected that measures were put in place to ensure any confusion or misconduct was dealt with,” he added.

“Given that Mike continued to minister, it was naturally expected that leadership had done its job.

“I’m not sure an investigation by the Church of England is an independent investigation, given that it’s part of the denomination,” he added.

“Churches and denominations historically do a horrible job at this... and so I’m concerned – gravely concerned – because this has been going on for 20 years and I hope they get it right. I have not been confident so far.”

‘Conveyor belt’

Former Soul Survivor staff members, as well as Rev Canon Pilavachi’s victims, claim that in hindsight they were part of a “conveyor belt” of young, athletic, attractive men, usually aged around 18 to 21 from broken homes or with traumatic childhoods, who were preyed upon and made to feel “special” by their celibate vicar who they say led them to believe he held the key to their careers, happiness and futures.

Many of the people The Telegraph has spoken to say they first encountered the now 65-year-old charismatic evangelist through his church’s gap-year programme, Soul Time, now known as Soul61.

Some became either his official or unofficial interns, and described him as a magnetic, “powerful” man with “a direct dial to God” who could determine their future within the church.

One man, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that he has “deep concerns” about the church’s “ability to conduct a thorough and unbiased investigation into its own affairs, particularly when it comes to sensitive and controversial issues such as those relating to Pilavachi”.

He added: “The church’s hierarchical structure and insular operations make it difficult for independent scrutiny to take place.

“Pilavachi’s influence bled across the veins of the church – both in the UK and across the world – and he has, or at least had, friends in high places who will have vested interests in the current investigation.

“I am aware of cases where the church has to have covered up or mishandled cases of abuse, both recent and non-recent, so I have little to no confidence in them handling the Pilavachi investigation properly.

“Because of this, I believe it is of the utmost importance for a truly independent body to be appointed to investigate Pilavachi so that the whole truth can be brought into the light to allow justice to prevail.”

‘Entirely independent’

In response, a Church of England spokesperson said: “The investigation is being run by safeguarding professionals from the National Safeguarding Team, NST, and diocese of St Albans and is entirely independent of Soul Survivor.

“We would urge anyone with any information to come forward and we can assure them that they will be treated with the utmost sensitivity.

“We cannot comment on any details shared by individuals, but we recognise the courage it takes to come forward and we would urge anyone who has information or wants support to contact the diocese or NST.

“We continue to offer support to all those involved and are also signposting to Safe Spaces, an independent support service.”

Rev Canon Pilavachi did not respond to a request for comment.

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