A top lawyer has called the police investigation into historic abuse at the Jesus Army “half-hearted” amid reports that more than 40 people are now pursuing civil claims against the cult.
In June, the Chron revealed that a number of claims the cult used “rodding” or corporal punishment to discipline children were not pursued by the police because the practice was not illegal in the 1970s and 1980s.
However, dozens are now in the process of taking up civil claims against the cult and a bulk of the cases are being handled by two solicitors who specialise in child abuse cases.
David Greenwood, partner for the Yorkshire-based law firm Switalkskis, said he was currently working on legal claims for at least 30 people “who grew up there as children under the Jesus Army regime”.
“They are alleging they were subject to a regime that was restrictive and that was emotionally damaging,” he told the Chron.
“Some also allege they were sexually abused. Most allege that they were physically abused. Not necessarily from their parents but from their supposed guardians,” he said.
“They weren’t allowed toys. They weren’t allowed to engage in competitive activities at school, they weren’t allowed to go out to the cinema like young people did.”
Mr Greenwood, a specialist child abuse lawyer, broadly supported the Chron’s calls for a full, independent inquiry into the Jesus Army. But he said that, as part of his work with the clients, he will be calling on Northamptonshire Police to reopen its investigation into historical abuse there.
He said: “I think we need to establish the level of offending that was taking place there.
“Part of my remit will be to persuade Northamptonshire Police to reopen their investigation into this.”
Operation Lifeboat, he went on to say, was “half-hearted” as dozens of rodding claims were not pursued.
“There is more information coming through every week,” he added. “I believe those people in charge at the Jesus Army need to sit down and work out some sort of compensation scheme for the people who suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse. There also needs to be compensation for the individuals who tried to leave but were unable to get their assets back.”
Many who joined the Jesus Army handed over homes to support the common purse, but several pursuing legal claims feel they were not adequately recompensed on leaving the organisation, Mr Greenwood said.
Another lawyer, Robert Shaw, a partner at Robson Shaw Solicitors, has taken on more than 10 cases against the Jesus Army, mainly from people who grew up in the communal houses of Northamptonshire.
He says his clients are also claiming they were victims of physical abuse, though neither lawyer has officially issued proceedings against the church as of yet.
Mr Shaw’s clients claim they were subject to a “barbaric regime, which involved corporal punishment for tiny matters,” he said. Some of his clients claim the manner of their punishment was “sexualised”.
“The children were often asked to take their underwear off in order to be beaten,” he added.
Northamptonshire Police launched Operation Lifeboat to look into allegations of historical sexual abuse within the Jesus Army back in 2015.
So far there have been three prosecutions, the most recent being that of Karl Skinner, a former member who was found guilty of three counts of indecent assault on a male and was given a suspended sentence.
Northamptonshire Police declined to comment.
"In response to the Chron’s investigation, spokesman for the Jesus Fellowship, Laurence Cooper, said: “On safeguarding, the Jesus Fellowship church, much like the UK as a whole, is in a very different place now to what it was during the last century. Safeguarding is much higher up the agenda for every organisation in the modern day.
"Our leadership teams are now well trained, and well aware of safeguarding issues. We have a central safeguarding team who are employed to keep our safeguarding efforts on track.
"It’s not like the 70s and 80s, when even big organisations like the BBC had very little in place to guard against these issues.
"Physical punishment, such as was commonly used in school even when I was a boy has been outlawed in the UK and is not practised or condoned by people in the Jesus Fellowship.
"The Jesus Fellowship church opposes illegal physical punishment and we’d report abuse we became aware of to the police immediately.
"People in the church these days profoundly regret that some people were hurt emotionally, spiritually and in other ways in the past. We’re sorry – and this has been expressed on many occasions in public.
"We’re sorry that people feel let down by the church. Sorry that they don’t feel they were cared for. We acknowledge that people feel hurt and pain. My personal hope is that they will - eventually - be able to find some release from this.”