The founder of the Jesus Army in Northampton, who was accused of running the organisation like a cult during his lifetime, may have abused some members “sexually and financially”, according to claims by his successor.
Former Bugbrooke pastor Noel Stanton formed the evangelist movement in 1969 and went on to set up New Creation Farm on the outskirts of Northampton – a segregated commune that eventually spawned a number of offshoots.
He remained leader of the Jesus Army, also known as the Jesus Fellowship, until his death in 2009, when more than 2,000 people lined the streets of Northampton to pay tribute to the pastor.
But we are today launching a call for a full public inquiry after it emerged his successor made a number of claims and admissions at the organisation’s annual conference last month.
In a speech before hundreds of members, talking about “radical transformation”, current Jesus Fellowship leader Mick Haines said he had become aware of “serious allegations” about Mr Stanton.
He said: “The apostolic group of the Jesus Fellowship church have in recent months, from December 2016, received new allegations from members of our church concerning Noel Stanton – senior pastor between 1957 and 2009.
“The allegations are of financial abuse of individuals and spiritual and sexual abuse. We are not in receipt of all the facts, but we are seeking to move forward in bringing in a new culture that is distinct from the past.
“We have taken these allegations very seriously. As presented, they indicate serious character faults.”
Mr Haines said Mr Stanton was in an “unaccountable position” during his decades in charge and acknowledged “the pain that has been caused”.
“We want to support those who have suffered as a result,” he added.
“In respect of those victims that have been directly affected by the current concerns we would ask that respect for their confidentiality and privacy is maintained.”
Mr Haines went on to say about Noel Stanton: “Under his ministry, I found a re-kindling of the holy spirit, life and gifts and released into effective ministry.
“I know God has been with us all these years.
“But no-one is infallible and Noel had a flawed character.”
Mr Haines was named as Mr Stanton’s successor before his death in 2009 and spoke at a thanksgiving ceremony for the former leader at the Jesus Centre, in Abington square, Northampton, in 2009.
“His heart was to the people of Northampton,” he told a packed hall eight years ago. “This is a very significant day for the history of Northampton and the history of the Jesus Army.”
The church still has about 2,000 members, 500 of whom live in New Creation community houses around the UK. Many of those who have lived in the communes were homeless or addicted to drugs before they joined.
Two former Jesus Army recruits have already been prosecuted for sexual offences carried out during their time at the church’s communes.
In February, “transient member” Nigel Perkins was jailed at Northampton Crown Court for five counts of sexual assault, which he inflicted on young boys in the 1980s.
A Northamptonshire Police spokesman has revealed the force will also be bringing “several” more prosecutions against former members as part of Operation Lifeboat, the investigation set up to look into historical sexual abuse within the Jesus Army.
Lead investigator DCI Ally White said allegations about Noel Stanton’s conduct were also made as far back as 2015.
DCI White said: “In early 2015, Northamptonshire Police received two complaints about Noel Stanton’s conduct in the 1970s and 1980s. These complaints were fully investigated and in one case it included contacting an alleged victim in Australia.
“However, no victims were ultimately identified and, despite a full and proper investigation, no criminal offences were disclosed and as a result the case papers were filed.
“The force has devoted some considerable time to this overall investigation and has brought, or will be bringing, prosecutions against a number of individuals connected with the Jesus Fellowship. If any new evidence, intelligence or information comes to light we will investigate appropriately.
“Our door remains open on this – Northamptonshire Police will always investigate allegations of historic abuse and we would urge any potential victims to contact us on 101.”
One Jesus Army member, who lived at New Creation Farm in Nether Heyford in the 1980s, said Mr Stanton’s on-stage persona was quite different from his strict nature around the farm.
He said: “Noel was very appealing to young people, they were people who didn’t have a lot of love in their life.
“To some, he would seem warm and generous and quite caring.
“To the people on the inside, people that grew up there, he came across as overbearing. This was at times very uncomfortable and looking back it was rather sleazy.”
Though the former member said he did not know of any specific cases of abuse involving Mr Stanton, he said: “Noel was untouchable.
“He could do exactly what he wanted – he thought the other leaders were stupid.
“He would stand up and have a go at people for eating bananas or eating cheese on toast [which were banned].
“After that we would see him in the kitchen eating cheese on toast or bananas.
“All sorts of things were banned. We weren’t allowed sugars in our tea or chocolate because they were the ‘devil’s food’. We weren’t involved in sport.
“That’s why people never stood up to him. He told them what to do.
The former member believes there has to now be an independent public inquiry into the conduct of Noel Stanton.
He said alleged victims need a platform to get answers about the alleged abuse at the Jesus Army communes.
His death in 2009 means Mr Stanton will never face police questions, nor will he have the opportunity to defend himself.
His brother Robert Stanton, now a minister of Wootton Baptist Church in Bedfordshire, told us: “I never had any indication whatsoever there was anything like that about Noel. I am sure there wasn’t.
“[The Jesus Army] wasn’t a cult, there was no cult about it. It was a branch of the Christian church as far as I’m concerned,” he added.
A Jesus Fellowship spokes man said the organisation was going through a process of “cultural change” and has been open about the allegations surrounding its founder in a bid to become more trans parent.
The fellowship enlisted the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS) to carry out a full audit of its safeguarding practices in 2015.
The spokesman told us: “We have opened up in the last few years and we have changed our leadership model, we now allow women in ministry, women in leadership positions which weren’t allowed before.
“Noel was very much a captain of industry.”
On Mr Paine’s assertion that Mr Stanton was “unaccountable” as the head of the Jesus Army, we asked the spokesman why the leader was not challenged more during his life.
“I had arguments with Noel,” he said. “I don’t think I and other people didn’t try and tell him things, but like I say, he was a captain of industry.
“He was a bit aloof.”
Asked whether he would support a full independent inquiry, the spokesman said: “If such a thing was desirable, you would find the police would have made a referral.
“The police have looked into this and decided to take no further action. It is in their hands in terms of the wider ramifications.
“We would be fully supportive if that was deemed to be the case.”
The CCPAS claims to have made a number of recommendations to the Jesus Army as a result of its 2015 audit.
A spokeswoman from the charity said: “Jesus Fellow ship have put in place a well resourced safeguarding team to help implement these recommendations, and a service agreement between Jesus Fellowship and CCPAS is in place to provide support and accountability, and to ensure the recommendations are
fully embedded into the operations of Jesus Fellowship.
“The current service agreement between CCPAS and Jesus Fellowship remains in place, with additional training provision for members of Jesus Fellowship to promote best practice in relation to all aspects of safeguarding.”
What was your experience of the Jesus Army? Email chief reporter Paul Lynch at email@example.com or call 01604 467039.