Charity boss ‘used spiritual authority to control people’, finds Church of England probe

08 Sep 2023 News

Rev Canon Mike Pilavachi

Soul Survivor

The Church of England’s national safeguarding team (NST) has concluded its investigation into the founder of a Christian charity who was accused of giving “inappropriate massages”.

Earlier this year, Mike Pilavachi, founder of the Soul Survivor Watford charity, resigned from his role and stepped back from the Church of England after historical safeguarding concerns relating to his behaviour in leadership and ministry emerged.

NST’s investigation found that the concerns are “substantiated”, saying that Pilavachi “used his spiritual authority to control people”.

Soul Survivor has now commissioned barrister Fiona Scolding to lead a full, independent review, with her report expected to be published in full at the end.

‘Substantiated concerns’

NST’s investigation looked at Pilavachi’s conduct in leadership and ministry before and after his ordination in 2012, “from his time as a youth leader through to current day”.

It described the “substantiated concerns” as “an abuse of power relating to his ministry, and spiritual abuse; described in guidance as ‘a form of emotional and psychological abuse characterised by a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour in a religious context’”. 

“It was concluded 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,” it wrote in a statement

The Church of England pledged to share any relevant safeguarding information about Pilavachi should he become “minister elsewhere both in this country and abroad”. 

Alain Smith, bishop of St Albans, said: “This has been a painful process for everyone involved, going back over years. I’m sorry on behalf of the Church for the hurt caused and would like to acknowledge the courage of those who came forward to share their lived experience. I’m aware there will be further contact with individuals about a more personalised response.”

‘We’re committed to learning lessons from what happened’

In response to the conclusion of NST’s investigation, Soul Survivor said it was “grateful to all those who have contributed to this process, who by coming forward have brought Mike’s abusive behaviour into the light”.

“We’re deeply sorry to all those people who have been victims of spiritual, emotional and psychological abuse, physical wrestling and massage under Mike’s leadership. There has been a systematic pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour,” it added.

“We’re saddened that these behaviours happened in a context that should have provided safety and spiritual support. We’re committed to learning lessons from what has happened and to put in place further practices and procedures that will seek to ensure this kind of behaviour does not happen in the future.”

Scolding's independent review will be published in full once the review concludes. 

“The trustees are committed to implementing her recommendations,” the charity added. 

“We’re aware of the hurt many individuals have and continue to experience as a result of Mike’s abuse and are truly sorry for the part Soul Survivor has played. We have been working with the NST to provide counselling and advocacy support to the individuals they have identified as finding it most beneficial. We remain committed to ensuring our church is safe and welcoming for all.”

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