Evangelical Youth Festival Founder under Investigation for Safeguarding Concerns

Christopher Eyte | Contributing Writer | Updated: May 19, 2023
Evangelical Youth Festival Founder under Investigation for Safeguarding Concerns

Evangelical Youth Festival Founder under Investigation for Safeguarding Concerns

A respected evangelical leader in the UK is under investigation by the Church of England for safeguarding concerns following allegations of full body oil massages and intense wrestling matches with young men.

Rev. Canon Mike Pilavachi is the Associate Pastor at Soul Survivor – an Anglican Church in the town of Watford in Hertfordshire, England – and the founder of the evangelistic Soul Survivor festivals, which helped thousands of young people with their faith. The festivals were held from 1993 to 2019 across the UK and were so popular that Soul Survivor was also established in the USA and other countries.

Pilavachi was awarded for his efforts with young people by the Queen in 2019 when he was made a Member of the British Empire (MBE).

On April 3, 2023, however, Pilavachi, who has claimed to be celibate, stepped away from ministry after concerns about safeguarding were raised.

According to the Watford Observer, police are not currently involved, although Hertfordshire Constabulary is ‘monitoring’ the situation. The Church of England has launched an investigation into Pilavachi, but he has not been suspended.

The Daily Telegraph reports that there were allegations about inappropriate intimate relationships involving massage sessions between Pilavachi and some young adults taking part in a Christian gap year project called Soul61.

The outlet also noted that former Soul Survivor staff members and alleged victims claimed they were urged to receive full-body oil massages by Rev. Canon Pilavachi in the minister’s bedroom as he straddled them. They also report Pilavachi engaging in “vigorous” wrestling matches that could last up to 20 minutes.

The Church of England’s Safeguarding Investigation, being carried out according to the House of Bishops’ guidance, is fully supported by the Soul Survivor church in Watford but is being conducted independently of the church by professionals from the National Safeguarding Team and the St. Albans Diocesan Safeguarding Team.

Rev. Andy Croft, the senior pastor of Soul Survivor Watford, who has authored books with Pilavachi, made a statement about the investigation to his church on April 30.

“As most people will know by now, four weeks ago we told you that there was an independent national church safeguarding investigation happening into Mike Pilavachi. It’s absolutely right, when allegations have been made, that there is an independent investigation, and it’s appropriate that Mike steps back,” Croft said.

“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. I want to say, on behalf of the leadership of the church, how much this grieves us,” he continued.

“I also want to acknowledge that for our church family, this is painful. The trustees and the staff of the church have been cooperating fully and completely with this investigation and will continue to do so.”

He then encouraged the congregants to report any relevant information they may have to the national safeguarding team.

“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,” Croft said. 

“In the meantime, we understand how difficult this is for many of you and, as a pastoral team, we are here to support you in any way that we can. We can also refer you to independent support if this has brought up difficult emotions,” Croft concluded.

On May 16, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Head of the Anglican Communion, The Most Rev. Justin Welby, who had spoken at the Soul Survivor festival in the past, also released a statement in which he noted that he was ‘deeply concerned’ amid the allegations.

“The investigation is prioritising the wellbeing of everyone concerned, and I am confident they are treating all who are involved in the investigation and everything that has been shared with the utmost care and sensitivity. Access to counselling is available and support is being offered to all concerned,” he said.

“I cannot comment any further at this stage while the investigation is ongoing, but I know how profoundly painful this is. I would like to assure anyone who has been affected by this situation of my ongoing prayers. For some that will be from their direct involvement, for others this is bringing to the surface past experiences from their own lives. Please continue to support and pray for one another, as we remind each other of the love of Christ, which never fails.”

Solicitor Richard Scorer of Slater and Gordon Solicitors is advising some of the complainants. On Twitter, he said the allegations against Mike Pilavachi are “extremely serious” and called for the investigation to be more independent. He argued that the allegations and the institutional responses to those allegations by both Soul Survivor and the wider Church of England should be investigated.

“There are simply too many connections between the Church of England and Soul Survivor, both at the diocesan and national levels and too many potential conflicts of interest, for survivors to have confidence in the independence and transparency of any church-led investigation,” Scorer wrote.

He added that ‘survivors’ should be allowed to choose an independent agency to investigate the allegations.

Paul Martin founded Soul Survivor USA in 2000, which often involved visits by Pilavachi to events across the pond. He expressed concerns about the allegations to the Daily Telegraph and said there were allegations about Pilavachi’s relationship with young interns dating back to 2002, which he claims were known to the Soul Survivor leadership.

He told the Daily Telegraph: “I had brought Mike to the US countless times between 1999 and 2007. In doing so, I had introduced him to dozens – if not hundreds – of young men who fit the profile of what I heard back in the early 2000s and in The Telegraph article.

“It was my duty to speak so that potential victims here in the States were made aware, and that I take responsibility for my part in this sad situation – not one of negligence but of, as former executive director of Soul Survivor US, connecting Mike to young men that fit the profile of the victims that have come forward.”

One of those coming forward to speak to the safeguarding team is Rev. Dave Jones, a former pastor at Soul Survivor, who is the vicar of St John’s Church, Beckenham.

On May 14, via a Facebook post, he publicly said that the investigation had “reignited the pain of working under Mike” that he had “spent years trying to suppress.”

“I knew that I needed to share my story. Last Friday I met with the national safeguarding team. My experience was positive, I was made to feel safe and at ease, and given the opportunity to share whatever I needed to share, and I know that I’ve done my bit. I shared my story, and they listened, and now I’m hoping to lay this down and move forward. They’ve offered me counselling, which I’ve gladly accepted.”

Worship leader Matt Redman, who helped to found Soul Survivor festivals, would not comment on his own experiences of Pilavachi whilst there is an ongoing investigation. He said he was deeply impacted by the media reports and added that “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.”

Rev. Canon Mike Pilavachi has made no public comment to date about the allegations. The safeguarding investigation is ongoing.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Brian A. Jackson

Christopher Eyte lives with his wife Céline and three children in Swansea, Wales, UK. He has worked as a journalist for many years and writes his own blog (hislovefrees.life) encouraging others in their walk with Jesus. He became a Christian in February 2002, after a friend explained God's amazing grace!

Evangelical Youth Festival Founder under Investigation for Safeguarding Concerns