Gerald Coates, the founder of a network of charismatic churches, has been found to have engaged in behaviour with under 18s that was inappropriate, according to a recent safeguarding review. Here’s what we know so far


The behaviour of yet another church leader is in question: the late Gerald Coates, who founded the Pioneer network of churches. Pioneer asked consultancy group Christian Safeguarding Services (CSS) to conduct an independent review last year due to allegations about his conduct with teen boys and young men, and the outcome has just been published. Here’s what we know:

Who was Gerald Coates?

Coates was one of the significant figures of the UK’s non-denominational charismatic movement that emerged in the 1970s. The CSS report described a “flamboyant” and “eccentric” man who founded Pioneer, a network of churches similar in style and theology to other evangelical groups such as New Frontiers, Ground Level and Ichthus.

From 1984 to 2009 Coates was Pioneer’s national leader. He handed over the reins of the network to Billy and Caroline Kennedy, who led it from 2009 to 2019, after which time Ness Wilson took over. Coates continued to lead a Pioneer church in Leatherhead, Surrey, until 2021. He passed away in 2022.

Coates described himself as leading a prophetic ministry called Insight, which was first broadcast on Premier Christian Radio in 2005. In 2016 he wrote in an article for the Pioneer Journal that throughout his ministry he rubbed shoulders with ‘celebrity Christians’ such as RT Kendall, David Pawson and even Sir Cliff Richard. He was also behind initiatives such as March for Jesus, an annual interdenominational event in which Christians march through towns and cities.

According to the CSS report, Coates had described himself in public meetings as an “ex-homosexual”. At the time of his passing, he had been married to his wife Anona for 50 years. It also said that he was seen to consume “significant amounts of alcohol on a regular basis” later in life.

On his death, a number of senior Christian leaders expressed gratitude for Coates’s ministry and the positive impact he’d had on them. For example, Pete Greig, founder of 24-7 prayer, said on Facebook: “Very sad to learn of the death today of Gerald Coates, a true pioneer. It was through him and his wife Anona that Sammy [Pete’s wife] came to know Jesus and then, through an astoundingly accurate prophecy from Gerald that my life was redirected and we met.”

What is Pioneer?

“Pioneer boomed from a few friends meeting in a front room to a full-scale nationwide network,” Coates said in the Pioneer Journal. Pioneer’s latest ‘Impact report’ says its network has 54 separate congregations. Its current UK leader, Ness Wilson, leads Open Heaven Church in Loughborough, sits on the Evangelical Alliance Council, is a Trustee for London Institute for Contemporary Christianity and has connection with the Wildfires Festival. The chair of trustees is Steve Clifford, the former head of the Evangelical Alliance, who has a long history with Pioneer.

“From its earliest days Pioneer has positioned itself within evangelicalism as an informal, non-religious, and relational movement, breaking away from what it deemed to be the constraining structures and practices of traditional churches,” states the CSS report.

“In 1998 Coates published a book entitled ‘Non-religious Christianity’ wherein he challenged conventional religious practices. Pioneer has been variously described, including such descriptors as cutting edge, radical, non-conformist, and trailblazing.” The report further noted that “Those from a more conservative, Pentecostal background feared that Coates’s more liberal approach could lead to ‘grace being used to cover up license.’”

What are the allegations?

In summary, that Coates had inappropriate contact and conversations with teens and young men, singling out “gifted” and “good looking” men and even inviting some of them to live in his house.

According to the CSS report, their investigation was first sparked by a complaint made on social media in July 2023 about Coates’ “ministry and pastoral practice”, though it was not serious enough for referral to the police or social services.

The report says that Pioneer Trust met with the complainant and found that it was “consistent with observations and shared concerns that had been discussed previously within the safeguarding and leadership teams of Pioneer Trust”. It said that Pioneer’s trustees, staff and leadership had tried to address these concerns with Coates on “several prior occasions” and that within the ministry numerous people reported an attitude of “that’s just Gerald”, or “that’s Gerald’s ministry”, particularly in the earlier days.

These concerns related to how Coates was interacting with men in their teens and early 20s. Though “not sexually inappropriate,” the report says “he was not respecting personal boundaries, and that his behaviour could be misunderstood as having a sexual motivation”. This included extended prayer and prophecy times, and seeking outside contact through social media or exchanging contact details.

Coates would then offer mentoring and guidance or even being a “father figure”, but would ask highly personal and uninvited questions. “Once contact had been established, he would start very quickly to question them about their use of pornography, masturbation etc,” the report says. He would also offer a “Holy Kiss” that left some feeling “violated” but “unable to object”.

The report says the most concerning behaviour was the contact with under 18s. “Some individuals appear to have been harmed emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, and attribute that to their contact with Coates and / or Pioneer,” the report says.

Who made the allegations?

After the complaint that sparked the investigation, CSS was commissioned to conduct an external, independent safeguarding review and 35 people wrote submissions to the inquiry. Several said Coates had shown “inappropriate and abusive behaviours”.

The initial complainant, who was kept anonymous, expressed concern that “Gerald seemed to have an unhealthy interest in young men, including himself, but [he] felt this was ignored and not taken seriously,” according to the CSS report.

What steps were taken?

After 2009, when Coates stepped down as national leader of Pioneer, he continued to be influential in the network, though in an independent capacity. That was also when leaders started to have concerns about his ministry practices. The year before, he had written a book called Sexual Healing (New Wine Press), and according to the CSS report, he was increasingly concerned about pornography and the sexualised society and its effect on spiritual wellbeing.

The leaders approached their safeguarding partner, Thirtyone:eight (formerly known as CCPAS), with their concerns, sought advice and asked Coates to change his behaviour; there were limited improvements.

It is noted in the report that prior to 2018 the Charity Commission did not require safeguarding policies to be in place for charities that did not engage in regulated activity with children or young people. Pioneer did not have a safeguarding policy in place until after 2013 and the review focused on the effectiveness of these policies. 

What did the report conclude?

The CSS report was mainly focused on the safeguarding practices of Pioneer, past and present, with the view to improving them. It praised the organisation for being open and transparent and committed to improving safeguarding.

The report warned that “it is impossible to judge motives and intentions and that particular care must be taken given that Coates’s voice could not be heard”.

The main failure of Pioneer, the report said, was to fail to report an incident with a 12-13-year old in 2015. “While it is impossible to say what the outcome of a report to the Local Authority would have been, the fact that none of the organisations involved reported the information was a significant failure and a missed opportunity to add weight to the actions of Pioneer to address Coates’s concerning behaviours,” the CSS report concluded.

There were a number of recommendations for Pioneer to improve its safeguarding practices for the future. “The catalogue of reported incidents provides significant evidence that Coates’s practice fell short of expected standards, that appropriate boundaries have not been respected and maintained, and that there has been a lack of oversight and accountability for his actions,” the report said.

How did Pioneer respond?

The network said it accepted the report in full in a response on its website and that it would seek to improve.

“We wanted the review to help us listen and learn,” the statement says. “CSS heard from over 30 individuals most of whom reported being hurt and harmed by inappropriate and damaging ministry practices through their contact with Pioneer. To those respondents we want to thank them for their bravery in telling their stories and offer a heartfelt and sober apology. We are so sorry.

“We hope that having your story heard, believed, and validated – together with this apology and a commitment to implementing the report’s recommendations – goes some way towards a measure of healing.”