The Church of England's National Safeguarding Team has released its initial findings into allegations against Mike Pilavachi
The National Safeguarding Team responsible for looking into the allegations against the vicar and founder of Soul Survivor Watford has "substantiated" the claims.
In a statement released today, the Church of England said the internal investigation found that Pilavachi exhibited “an abuse of power relating to his ministry and spiritual abuse”, and that “he used his spiritual authority to control people and that his coercive and controlling behaviour led to inappropriate relationships, the physical wrestling of youths and massaging of young male interns”.
The concerns relate to conduct "spanning 40 years from his time as a youth leader through to current day". Before starting Soul Survivor festivals and Soul Survivor Watford, Pilavachi worked at St Andrew's Chorleywood.
Responding to NST's statement, Soul Survivor Watford has apologised for "the part Soul Survivor has played" and announced a full and independent review to be led by Fiona Scolding KC, with more details to be published in the coming weeks. The report of Ms Scolding's review will be published in full.
Pilavachi resigned from his role four months after the safeguarding investigation became public. In a statement posted on Facebook (11 July 2023), he wrote: "I have today resigned as Associate Pastor of Soul Survivor Watford. I have taken this step because the Church needs to heal and I have realised that my continued presence will hinder that process".
"I seek forgiveness from any whom I have hurt during the course of my ministry. I have, on advice, made no comment on the allegations and will not make any further public comment as I do not believe it would be good for anyone if I took part in a trial by media or social media. I pray for God's blessing on the Church it has been a privilege and joy to serve these past 30 years", he said.
Who is Mike Pilavachi?
Mike Pilavachi was born in 1958 in the UK to Greek Cypriot parents. He started his ministry as a youth worker in Watford at St Andrew's church, Chorleywood. Later, he went on to establish Soul Survivor church in Watford, which became a home for the Soul Survivor festivals that ran from 1993 until 2019. He is regarded within Christian circles as a prophet and a charismatic leader, and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his services to young people in 2020. In the same year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev Justin Welby, announced that Pilavachi would be given the Alphege Award for evangelism and witness.
Pilavachi has written several books on Christian living and youth ministry. His passionate style of teaching and his dedication to mentoring young Christian leaders have made him an influential figure in evangelical Christianity.
How have events unfolded?
Mike Pilavachi was initially suspended from his role as Associate Pastor of Soul Survivor Watford in May while the Church of England's National Safeguarding Team (NST) and the Diocese of St Albans investigated allegations against him.
On 18 April, a blogger revealed that Soul Survivor had made numerous changes to staff profiles on their website. A sentence regarding the church's senior pastor Andy Croft was removed. It had read: "As a teenager, Andy was one of Mike’s interns." References to the church's Soul61 leadership programme were also deleted.
In a statement, the church told Premier Christianity: “In the light of changes to the team resulting from Mike Pilavachi stepping back the website was temporarily updated to reflect the current situation on the ground pending the outcome of the investigation.”
In June, Soul Survivor Watford's senior pastor Andy Croft and assistant pastor Ali Martin were also suspended. In a statement on 8 June, the trustees of Soul Survivor Watford said: "After receiving new information from the National Safeguarding Team (NST) investigation into Mike Pilavachi, the non-staff Trustees of Soul Survivor Watford have decided to suspend two members of staff under HR processes: Senior Pastor, Andy Croft and Assistant Pastor, Ali Martin. The information submitted to the investigation relates to concerns over the handling of allegations that were raised before the NST investigation began. While the investigation continues, the Trustees have asked Rev. Jon Stevens (Executive Pastor) to take on the interim leadership of Soul Survivor Watford, with senior support from Rev. Canon Tim Lomax (Bishop’s Visitor)."
The church's initial statement on 2 April described the allegations against Pilavachi as “non-recent", with the official statement from the acting chair of the church's trustees, David Mitchell, calling them “matters which occurred a considerable time ago”. However this wording was amended by the church on 28 April, with Soul Survivor acknowledging "we were today informed by the independent team conducting the investigation that allegations about recent matters have come to light. Whilst it does not appear these recent allegations include physical contact they are no less significant because of that.”
According to Soul Survivor Watford the police are not involved and the clergy disciplinary process is not underway. Instead, the NST is looking into the concerns “according to the Church of England House of Bishops guidelines".
What have church leaders said?
The songwriter said he, along with wife, Beth, had "come forward previously at the time of being mistreated" but were "ignored, patronised or gaslit by those in leadership".
"Historically there has been a failure of care in this area by those in authority at Soul Survivor," he added.
In his statement, Redman said: "The allegations cover a whole spectrum of harm - physical, psychological, spiritual etc...I know some are having a tough time believing the various accusations...I really understand and sympathise with that. But there are victims here - and the number of people who have come forward to the safeguarding investigation is now a loud and clear alarm-bell that cannot be ignored. I feel particularly strongly on this issue as I myself have experienced the harmful behaviours described."
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Rev Justin Welby, acknowledged the news of the investigation as "profoundly painful," adding, "I would like to assure anyone who has been affected by this situation of my ongoing prayers." His statement was released on 16 May, almost two weeks after similar messages from other prominent church leaders.
The Evangelical Alliance's Gavin Calver publicly expressed sadness at the news, and shared the contact details of the Church of England's National Safeguarding Team. Christian Youth charities such as Youthscape and South West Youth Ministries have released similar statements, with the latter stating: "We are suspending Mike's patron role with us until the findings of the investigation are announced."
In a joint statement, Tim Hughes and Pete Hughes said: "We want to acknowledge the tragic stories which are coming to light...We cannot comment on our own experiences while this safeguarding investigation is taking place". The brothers are both ordained in the Church of England, with Tim Hughes having regularly led worship at Soul Survivor.
What happens now?
Now that the first stage of the investigation has concluded, the Church of England has commissioned an independent review to be led by Fiona Scolding KC. This is separate and independent of the internal Church of England investigation, with a full report to be published at the end. A timeframe is yet to be set.
The National Safeguarding Team has also been granted permission to take out a complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure against Mike Pilavachi, relating to a safeguarding concern post ordination. The Church of England said this is "an ongoing process, and no further details can be given until this has concluded".
Senior pastor Andy Croft remains suspended and further investigations about concerns raised relating to a former senior Church of England leader linked with Soul Survivor Festivals are ongoing. The safeguarding concerns relating to assistant pastor, Ali Martin, who was also suspended, have not been substansiated and the CofE will provide an update "in due course".
Premier Christianity has invited Pilavachi to respond to the allegations, but at the time of writing has not received a reply.
Abuse in the Church
Lately there has been significant criticism about how the CofE and other church organisations have dealt with past allegations involving clergy. On the one hand, the Church hierarchy has been accused of being too lenient and not listening to genuine victims of abuse; yet on the other, of not supporting the accused, even if claims are groundless.
The initial press release concerning Pilavachi made assurances that “support is being offered to all those involved”, which is likely to refer to both Pilavachi himself as well as those who have expressed the concerns.
It’s not surprising that the CofE has emphasised concern for all parties. The Clergy Discipline Measure (CDM), the structure for dealing efficiently and fairly with formal complaints of misconduct, was described as “toxic” in a recent report, which found that one third of clergy subject to the CDM had considered ending their lives. It recommended “kinder” treatment of the accused. In November 2020 Father Alan Griffin tragically took his own life after a year-long investigation into false child abuse allegations. The Coroner said there was no evidence the priest had committed any wrongdoing.
In this context, it is unsurprising that the National Safeguarding Team has requested that people refrain from second-guessing the outcome of the investigation: “We really appreciate your prayers for all those involved at this very difficult time and we do ask, for the sake of all those involved, that you do not speculate or discuss this more widely, including on social media.”
Responding to the statement, however, Natalie Collins, a gender justice specialist and abuse survivor, said: “It is of significant public interest that one of the most influential Christian leaders of a generation has stepped back from ministry in order for historic safeguarding issues to be investigated and, while it is important to be cautious about how the situation is discussed, encouraging silence is not healthy.”
“There will be many individuals who have been subject to power misuse and hurt within churches”, she added. “For many of them, social media is their safe place; to share with likeminded people, to express their hurt, shock and pain. To demand that silence is maintained across social media is a tactic which enables powerful people to retain their power. And that is not okay.”
In a follow up statement released on 19 April, Soul Survivor Watford stated: “It is of the utmost importance that everyone knows that if they have information regarding this investigation we want them to come forward…They will be listened to, their voices will be heard, and they will be given all the necessary support. Anything that needs to come into the light must come into the light.”
Thirtyone:Eight, the church safeguarding organisation formerly known as CCPAS, advises people to be “pastorally sensitive” when discussing public investigations. “At the heart of any concerns that may have been raised, are people,” writes chief executive Justin Humphrys. Thirtyone:Eight and The National Safeguarding Team encourages anyone with safeguarding concerns to contact the relevant parties.
In recent years the evangelical world has reeled from awful scandals involving sexually abusive leaders - from Bill Hybels to evangelist Ravi Zacharias and L’Arche founder Jean Vanier. Christians will be closely watching and waiting for the conclusions of this NST investigation.
Those with safeguarding concerns related to this story are being asked to contact Jeremy Hirst at the Diocesan Safeguarding Team at firstname.lastname@example.org or Judith Renton, Ian Bowles or Anthony Clarke at the National Safeguarding Team at email@example.com or to contact thirtyone:eight on 0303 003 1111
This article was first published on 11 April 2023, and has been updated as more information has become available
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