Last week Howard Curtis was convicted at Croydon Crown Court of a number of offences of sexual assault against women and two offences of child cruelty. The sexual assaults took place at various times over a long period, between 2007 and 2013: one of the child cruelty offences took place much further back, between 1986 and 1989. Mr Curtis will be sentenced next month and will go to prison.
The prosecutor, says the Mail, told the jury that Mr Curtis
ran the Coulsdon Christian Fellowship in south London as a cult.If you're not familiar with Howard Curtis, you might have been surprised, on clicking on the link above, to see him pictured playing chess. The photo comes from a 2012 local news story
in which we learn that Howard Curtis didn't just run the Coulsdon Christian Fellowship. He ran the Coulsdon Chess Fellowship as well: a very busy club with "decades" of chess behind it, played by both adults and juniors.
Mr Curtis expresses his enthusiasm for children playing chess:
but perhaps it would not be too churlish to observe that according to the court, Mr Curtis has not always been the best judge of what is "good for children".
If you've played chess in Surrey over the last couple of decades, or if you're just generally aware of what goes on in the English chess community, none of this will have come as a surprise to you, since Coulsdon Chess Fellowship has played a prominent and controversial role in Surrey chess for a very long time.
Howard Curtis was, in his time, Director of Management Services at what was then the British Chess Federation: he also offered to move the BCF offices to his own premises in Coulsdon. Mercifully he was rebuffed: otherwise English chess would have been run out of the office of the leader of a religious cult who sexually abused women and assaulted children. (Of course he did, for a while, actually run that office.)
Oh yes, he also offered his services as Secretary of the Surrey County Chess Association
which offer was also rebuffed.
Not every offer made by Howard (and his longstanding and loyal number two, Scott Freeman) was turned down: they had spacious premises which they were always prepared to make available, they had funds and they had people who were prepared to volunteer. Premises, funds and volunteers are the things English chess clubs need, and tend to lack. So what would characteristically happen is that such-and-such an event or competition would be relocated to CCF or run by its people: or where this did not happen, CCF would set up a rival event. And over time more and more things fell under the direct or indirect control of CCF. This was their modus operandi.
This had led (by the time I arrived in Surrev chess, around 2002) to all sorts of conflicts, in which Messrs Curtis and Freeman were notably disputatious, in which long, barmy emails from Howard Curtis were common and in which threats of legal action were far from unknown. Still, in between shooting matches, the various parties had to find a way of co-existing. A lot of matches and tournaments continued to take place at CCF (as they still do today) since they still possessed those premises, funds and volunteers.
Among all the chess was, as the Advertiser reminded us in 2012, a great deal of junior chess. Presided over by the leader of a religious cult who sexually abused women and assaulted children.
Since you're wondering, none of the offences for which Howard Curtis has been convicted involved his chess activities and nobody but Howard Curtis has been charged with any offences.
So we can, if we like, take the view, now he has been tried, that it was about Howard Curtis and him alone, that it was about his religious role and that alone, that nobody else knew, suspected or could have known anything, that there is no danger that anything untoward could have happened in English chess as a result of CCF's involvement and that there is nothing to worry about.
That's not particularly my view.
I think that
- where an individual has been convicted of serious offences involving violence to women and children, offences which took places over a long period, and
- this individual was the longstanding head of a tightly-knit religious cult, a rather disputatious cult at that, and
- the religious cult and the individual concerned were both heavily involved with junior chess events over a long period of time
More on this theme later in the week. In the meantime, I've always recalled this one episode about CCF. It was, I think, 2005, and a controversy had erupted between CCF and the rest of Surrey chess - I can't recall which particular one of many it was, and it's not important.
For some reason, though, the Emergency General Meeting called to adjudicate on the dispute was held at CCF's own premises. Large numbers of CCF members filled the hall. This included many people who I had never seen, people nobody that I was with could recognise. Accordingly, the call came for a register of attendees to be taken which could later be checked against a membership list to ensure that everybody present was eligible to attend and vote.
The register was compiled and taken back to the office - the CCF office, on CCF premises. And once in that office, the register swiftly and mysteriously disappeared.
It was never seen again.
That's not a story about abuse, or violence. It's not even a story about a religious cult as such. It's not even an important story.
It's just a little story, from my personal experience, about how Howard Curtis's organisation behaved and what a completely untrustworthy shower that organisation was.
And now their leader, an influential man in English chess for many years, has been convicted of sexual assault and child cruelty.
This isn't good.