WATFORD (UNITED KINGDOM)
The Roys Report [Chicago IL]
May 4, 2023
By Julie Roys
Grammy-award winning worship leader Matt Redman and other prominent Christian leaders from the U.K. are commending survivors speaking out in one of the largest abuse scandals to rock the evangelical church there.
The scandal involves 65-year-old Mike Pilavachi, founder of Soul Survivor, a U.K. Christian youth festival that ran from 1993—2019 and attracted about 30,000 people from around the world each summer. Soul Survivor also inspired Survivor Records, which launched popular artists like Redman, Tim Hughes, Tree63, and YFriday.
Pilavachi, who also pastored Soul Survivor Watford, is now facing allegations he abused young men in his care, bullying them, giving them full-body massages, and pressuring them to engage in extended wrestling matches. Last month, Pilavachi quit Soul Survivor and stepped back from ministry at his church, after the Church of England announced that its National Safeguarding Team was investigating him.
At first, the Church of England stated that the matters concerning Pilavachi were “non-recent” and “occurred a considerable time ago.” But since then, the church has stated that the allegations span at least three decades and are as recent as 2020, the Telegraph reported.
Justin Humphreys of the leading U.K. safeguarding charity, thirtyone:eight, told The Roys Report (TRR) that he’s heard from dozens of people claiming to have been impacted by Pilavachi’s abuse either “directly and indirectly.” (Thirtone:eight is not investigating Pilavachi, but is offering its support and advice to victims who contact the organization.)
On Tuesday, Redman, who founded Soul Survivor with Pilavachi when Redman was just 19, tweeted: “Deeply impacted by the recent reports concerning Mike Pilavachi and Soul Survivor. Having spent some of my formative years in that environment, I felt it was important to acknowledge these news stories. But most of all I wanted to commend those who are hurting and have so courageously stepped forward.”
Redman added that he can’t comment on his own experience while the investigation is ongoing. But he urged those “needing to be heard” to contact the National Safeguarding Team with the Church of England.
The Roys Report (TRR) reached out to Redman through his wife, Beth, asking if he had participated in the investigation. Matt Redman responded that he didn’t want to make any further statements at this point.
On Wednesday, Tim Hughes and his brother Pete Hughes also released a statement supporting survivors.
Tim Hughes is a an Anglican pastor in the U.K. and worship leader known internationally for his #1 CCLI song, “Here I Am to Worship.” Pete Hughes is lead pastor of Kings X Church, an Anglican church in London. Both men were very involved in Soul Survivor at one time.
“As brothers who have been deeply shaped by Soul Survivor and worked with Mike Pilavachi over a number of years, we want to acknowledge the tragic stories that are coming into the light, and the bravery of those who have come forward,” the brothers stated.
Like Redman, they added that they cannot comment on their own experiences during the investigation. But they urged “anyone who needs a safe place” to contact the National Safeguarding Team or thirtyone:eight.
TRR reached out to Tim Hughes, asking if he and his brother participated in the investigation but did not hear back.
Allegations rock evangelical community in the U.K.
The allegations involving Pilavachi have rocked the evangelical community in the U.K. Pilavachi was considered a “hero” of “young Christians growing up in the 1990s, 2000s and early 2010,” one British media outlet reported. Plus, he was celebrated by the Church of England, and in 2020, was awarded a prestigious Lambeth Award.
Pilavachi’s prominence, coupled with the extensive size and reach of his alleged abuse makes the scandal “unprecedented,” said thirtyone:eight’s Justin Humphreys.
According to the Telegraph, alleged victims claimed Pilavachi had a “horrible cruelty and obsession” with men who often served as Pilavachi’s “official or unofficial interns.”
These young, attractive men in their late teens to early twenties were reportedly groomed by Pilavachi, who made them feel “special” and convinced them that he was key to their success and happiness.
Pilavachi’s special attention given these men was reportedly an “open secret” within Soul Survivor, yet because of the nearly cultic reverence for Pilavachi, no action was ever taken. Insiders at Soul Survivor would refer to these young men as “Pilly boys,” “Mike’s boys,” or “Mike’s favorites,” the Telegraph reported.
Several alleged victims told the Telegraph that Pilavachi urged them to receive full-body oil massages in their underwear while Pilavachi straddled them in his bedroom. They also reportedly said Pilavachi would subject them to intense wrestling matches that could last up to 20 minutes.
One alleged victim spoke with the Church Times about receiving a massage: “I told myself it was Mike, so of course it was fine and I agreed. We went up to his bedroom where he invited me to strip down to whatever felt comfortable, but suggested my underwear. I’d ended up lying on his bed in my boxers, receiving a full body massage with oils under dim lighting, which I simply couldn’t enjoy. I was 18 or 19 at the time and Mike was in his 40s.”
This same man said that soon after the massage, Pilavachi “dropped” him. He went from “being the golden boy to the black sheep,” the Times reported.
Others reported psychological abuse, as well. Alleged victims told the Telegraph that Pilavachi would praise them effusively and promise them an exciting future in ministry. But later, Pilavachi would turn on them, they said, ignoring, gaslighting and ghosting them.
Concerns about investigation & public discourse
Humphreys said a number of the people calling his organization have expressed concern about the investigation being conducted by the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team. He says they specifically mentioned the silence from the church when the allegations first surfaced—and then the church’s use of minimizing terms like “non-recent” when the investigation was announced.
Humphreys also noted that the current investigation is not independent since Pilavachi served as a pastor within the Church of England and the National Safeguarding Team is an entity of the Church of England. Humphreys said he hopes that when the current investigation is concluded, the church will commission an independent investigation.
Last Sunday, Soul Survivor Watford Senior Pastor Andy Croft seemingly addressed some of these concerns, the Church Times reported.
“We want you to know that we are especially aware of how much those who have come forward have been affected and of how much they are suffering, as are all who are directly involved in this investigation,” Croft said.
Croft added, “We cannot comment on an ongoing investigation, though we can say that more recent allegations have come to light. We want to underline our commitment to excellence in our present safeguarding practice and culture. We’ll continue to do all that we can to meet the high standards that we are aiming for, and to ensure that Soul Survivor is a safe place for all.”
Humphreys said he’s also concerned about the “tactics” some are using on social media “to goad” key figures and influencers with ties to Soul Survivor into speaking publicly.
He said there’s always a possibility these people may have been harmed themselves. And he noted that most of the alleged victims he’s spoken with are “heartbroken, devastated, and fearful of speaking out.” He said public pressure can do “unimaginable harm” to victims and urged people to be more sensitive.