Website: The Sun
Link : https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/12329112/inside-sinister-jesus-army-church-new-report/
IT'S the cult-like UK church where kids were sexually abused, brutally beaten with sticks and forced to toil in fields from as young as four.
The Jesus Army sect, based in Northamptonshire, hit the headlines last year amid a flood of allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
Former members told us how they were battered from age two, accused of being "possessed" and preyed on by adults with "wandering" hands.
Children were also distanced from their biological parents to be raised by all the adults - while boys and young men were sexually abused by leaders.
And in a sinister creed issued by the church, which was set up by former Baptist Noel Stanton in 1973, Elders were instructed to “Beat Adam [sin] out of a child by the age of seven.”
The sect - which followed a strict set of rules banning toys, sugar, sweets, TV and all the trappings of a normal childhood - was shut down last May.
And now, a leaked report, seen by the BBC, has found that its senior members covered up decades of abuse of women and children.
All of the sect's five surviving leaders effectively colluded with sex offenders through their handling of complaints, according to the report, which follows an inquiry commissioned by the church in 2017.
The leaders "must take responsibility for their inaction", said independent investigator, Vicki Lawson-Brown, who also found a culture of “blaming victims” and of "disgraced leaders"" being reinstated.
Growing up in horror sect
It's a culture that mum-of-three Anna* grew up in.
As a young girl in the Jesus Army, regular beatings dished out by the Elders of the commune were part of Anna's life from the moment she could walk.
Her mum was the single mother of a nine-year-old girl when she fell pregnant for a second time in her twenties.
Facing family pressure to have an abortion, she was attracted to the Jesus Army’s non-judgemental message of love – and they welcomed her with open arms.
After the birth, Anna, her older sister and her mum moved in to Sheepfold Grange, a sprawling manor house in the Northampton countryside owned by the Church and shared by around 20 members.
At its peak in the early 2000s, the now-dissolved Jesus Army – also known as the Jesus Fellowship Church – had more than 2,500 members living in communes in Northamptonshire and around the country.
Boys and girls in the sect were forced to be separated, while women wore long skirts and hair because showing ankles and ear was "sinful".
Jesus Fellowship Community Trust's statement
In a statement to the Sun Online today, the Jesus Fellowship Community Trust (JFCT) - formerly called Jesus Army - claimed the leaking of the new report may be a breach of data protection laws.
The statement added: "The Trustees repeat our sincere apology, as we have before, to those who have been harmed as a consequence of actions or inactions by those in the Church.
"The JFCT Trustees acknowledge the trauma of victims and those who have had a negative experience of the Church.
"JFCT continues to work with victims to help bring closure and compensation through establishing a redress scheme, and through other means."
Battered with sticks from age 2,
At Sheepfold Grange, Anna and her sister were separated from their mother and “parented” by so-called Brothers and Sisters deemed appropriate by the Elders.
“My big sister remembers them beating me at two," Anna tells Sun Online.
“They made you choose your own knobbly stick off the bush and I picked a whip-like branch with loads of knots on it, which wasn't a good choice.
“That stick hurt so much I climbed on top of the wardrobe where it was kept, and broke the knobbles off - but I got a beating for that too.
“I remember thinking it was good if it just burned, if it just felt hot. But the beatings that felt like a cut, like real pain were the worst.”
After school and working in the field, the children attended nightly meetings – known as agape (pronounced ag-a-pay) – where members prayed, chanted and spoke in tongues.
“When I was four, I was sitting in agape wearing a onesie and it was really itchy. One Brother who hated me from a very small age, said, ‘Stop scratching. That's the devil', " she says.
Accused of being 'possessed'
“I was desperately trying not to scratch but I was wiggling around so I got beaten.
“My mum was constantly told I was possessed by the devil. One of the Brothers would put his hand on top of my head, keeping me at arm's length and speaking in tongues.
"I remember desperately trying to wiggle and escape, but I couldn't because he was just pushing on my head."
Toys & school trips banned
Worldly possessions – including toys, books and radios – were banned, as was all music other than hymns.
Children were forbidden to play with school friends, go on school trips or celebrate birthdays and Christmas. And at lunch, they were forced to come home to eat.
Snacks, including bananas, were prohibited and only meals from Goodness Foods, the central food store run by the Jesus Army, was allowed.
“We weren’t starved,” says Anna. “There would be three meals a day, usually meat, boiled potatoes and vegetables, but it was absolutely vile and you had to eat every bit.”
Women treated as 'domestic servants'
A sexist hierarchy meant that men were considered elite and the women and children worked on the farmland, cooked and cleaned.
According to Ms Lawson-Brown, who authored the new leaked report, women were historically regarded as subservient to men and treated as "domestic servants", putting them and kids at greater risk of abuse.
And Anna claims: “Mum was bottom of the pile because she was a single mother and was seen as a sinner.
“I don’t remember seeing Mum much but when I did she looked downtrodden and sad.”
Picking up homeless waifs and strays to bring home
Even as a small child, Anna was sent out to London and Birmingham aboard the Jesus Army bus, to evangelize and recruit new members, particularly the homeless.
“I remember playing in their cardboard boxes," she says. “They were so accepting and nice, unlike the people I lived with.
“We would pick up homeless people, mentally ill people and they’d get in the van and come home with us.
“There was no vetting because only God can judge – even if they were a paedophile.”
Sex abuse convictions
We revealed last year how homeless and vulnerable men were used as slave labour by the Church, while girls and boys were at the mercy of their "superiors" and sexually assaulted by adults and other children.
Five men have been convicted over the sexual assault of 11 boys, between the 1970s and 1990s, and police are investigating over 200 complaints of different types of abuse.
Solicitor David Greenwood, who is dealing with ongoing cases, said the "cult" was a "totalitarian regime" laid down by Noel Stanton which deprived children of their childhood.
And in her new review, Ms Lawson-Brown described a "significant case" where the surviving leaders, by their failure to act, protected a convicted paedophile allowed to continue in his role as an Elder by Mr Stanton.
Anna – who, when she spoke to us last year, had only recently started therapy – says she doesn’t remember if she was sexually abused.
She has never spoken to her sister about her experiences, although she remembers her "shaking and crying” in bed.
Her older sister left when she was 15 but it was a couple of years later - when Anna was eight - before her mum found the courage to follow.
Anna had argued with an Elder at the meal table and was about to get another beating when her mum pulled her away.
“It was the first time in my life I'd called out to my mum and she’d saved me. We left the next day," she says.
After escaping the strict environment of the commune to live with her gran in Northampton, Anna says she went "wild" and spent her early teens years doing drugs and petty crime, before falling pregnant at 16.
Now settled with three children, Anna says she has friends who have been destroyed by their time in the Jesus Army. But she says she was "saved" by the birth of her oldest daughter.
'Elders forced me to strip naked in clothes store'
Another sect survivor, Adam McLeod, was 19 and homeless when he joined the community after meeting an Elder at a party.
Having lost his job, and been thrown out by his mum, he was sofa surfing and was invited to New Creation Farm, where Stanton lived.
“The culture was to hug everyone, to show them how much you love them,” he says. “No one's judging you and it just felt amazing.
“That drew me in and they took advantage of my vulnerability.”
Noel took to Adam immediately, inviting him to move into the farm.
Although the founder died in 2009, before the abuse allegations surfaced, some survivors have claimed he was involved in the sexual abuse of young men and other leaders have since been prosecuted.
Karl Skinner was given a suspended prison sentence in recent years for inappropriate behaviour with a young boy, and Alan Carter was sentenced to three years in prison for sex acts on a boy aged between 14 and 16 in the 1990s.
And Adam says the culture of “love” soon turned into something more sinister.
“The hugs began to cross lines and there was a lot of inappropriate touching,” he says. “I was young and good looking and I had so many advances from the leaders, even in the prayer meetings.
“One guy always came in for a hug and then his hands would wander.
“It was a difficult situation. I didn't get confrontational and say ‘Don't touch me.’ I would go along with it and then avoid them.
“I didn't tell anyone at the time, because I was very confused."
As so many boys were living at the farm, Adam was made to share a single bed every night. He also recalls ritual humiliation, including making him strip naked in front of them when he needed new clothes.
'Trapped by financial control'
On joining the commune, members surrendered all their worldly goods and handed full financial control over to the church.
But, in the three years he was there, Adam claims the group financially abused him, using him as slave labour and not paying his debts.
“They promise to take away your financial burdens, which was a dream for me as I had debts,” he says.
“But I got into a mess because they never kept their promise. I had a car on finance which ended up being repossessed because they never made a payment. The same went for other financial bills.”
Adam was made to work full-time in two businesses for no pay.
“Because you have no money, you don't have any freedom,” he says. “They controlled everything.
“You eat what you're given. I got a lift to and from work every day and they’d bring in my lunch. I was so hungry that I would sneak down to the stockroom and steal energy bars.
“Because you are not earning, you're not able to save any money to escape.
“I took pride in my appearance and they stripped that away. I was wearing disgusting hand-me-downs and haircuts were done in-house and were hideous."
Rescued in middle of night
Desperate and unhappy, Adam got back in touch with his mum who finally came to take him home in the middle of the night.
Now a property manager, the 36-year-old says his experience has left permanent damage.
“I find it hard to trust people,” he says. “It ruined my confidence.”
'Banned from closing the bathroom door at 12'
Another survivor, Maria*, recalls spending Christmas doing back-breaking work on the farm as a 13-year-old, pulling potatoes from frozen ground from dawn until after dark.
She was also sent away from her parents to live at another site, New Creation Farm, when she was 12 after a nurse of 30 took a “special interest” in her.
“She showered me with letters and cards and regularly telephoned me,” she says.
“When I went to stay at the farm, in a cottage that just had women living in it, I was informed that if I went to the toilet I had to leave the door open, and if I had a bath I had to let others come into the bathroom.
“I found this humiliating but was powerless to protest or do anything about it - I was just a child and no one would listen.
“They never sexually abused me but I was sexually exposed and I’m certain that was for the sexual gratification of some.”
Pensions left short
The church’s financial abuse has had long-term repercussions for one couple – Ian and Jeannie Johnson.
Ian joined the church in 1973 after Stanton asked him to help him establish their food business, Goodness Foods.
But, after marrying fellow church member Jeannie, who ran the church’s baking business, he became increasingly disillusioned over financial irregularities.
The couple left in 1984, after having children, but more than 35 years on Jeannie is still paying the price.
'We are appalled by abuse and deeply sorry'
The Jesus Fellowship Church released the following statement last year:
"In 2013 the Jesus Fellowship initiated a disclosure exercise, encouraging anyone who had experienced abuse - or any other negative experience - to bring this to the attention of the church safeguarding office. Information from this process was provided to the Police, who launched an investigation.
"As a result five offenders were subsequently convicted of non-recent child sexual offences connected to the church. We are appalled that this abuse occurred, and deeply sorry that children were harmed."
We also recognise that many people, whilst not having experienced sexual abuse, feel that their experience as children in the Church's community was damaging, even to the extent of having their adult years significantly affected. We are deeply sorry that this is the case, unreservedly apologising to these people.
"The church set up a counselling scheme which has already been much used. The church also started a redress scheme to offer support.
"Anyone with safeguarding issues or concerns, whether non-recent or current, should report them to the Jesus Fellowship Safeguarding Department (firstname.lastname@example.org), contact the Police directly or the Safeguarding Helpline Thirtyone:eight run by a support organisation independent of the Church - 0303 003 11 11
As the church failed to pay national insurance for their workers, Jeannie’s pension has been left £1,000-a-year short.
Now living in Crete, the couple have been left struggling to cope with medical bills.
In the wake of the assault allegations in 2013, a “redress and truth” scheme was set up by the Jesus Fellowship Community Trust and counselling is being offered to those who suffered abuse.
But Ian says they have ignored his complaint.
“They are saying they cannot help with people already retired,” he says. “And as a registered charity for helping the needy with a boasted £56m worth of assets I find it morally wrong.”
Many of those affected have come together through the Jesus Fellowship Survivors Association, a growing network of ex-members and services, which offers support and attempts to help them seek compensation.
And Ms Lawson-Brown's report has recommended further investigations into sexual, spiritual and financial abuse, as well the "inappropriate punishment" of children.
But for many survivors, the anguish continues.
"I see myself as lucky because I have got a strong mindset," says Anna.
"Otherwise it would have broken me."
*Names changed to protect the identity of the interviewee