“Hung out to dry,” those are the words of Lord Carlile in his judgment on how the Church of England authorities treated Bishop George Bell
The Church operated a kangaroo court. Here are the facts…
Bishop George Bell (1883-1958), Bishop of Chichester, has been judged and condemned without any case brought for his defence. An elderly woman came forward in 1995 and claimed that Bishop Bell had sexually abused her fifty years earlier. The authorities took no action. The woman complained again in 2013, by which time Bishop Bell had been dead for fifty-five years. The police concluded that there was sufficient evidence to justify their questioning Bishop Bell, had he been still alive. Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, discussed the matter with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and in 2015 the Church of England offered a formal apology to Bishop Bell’s accuser, paid her an undisclosed sum in compensation – now revealed to have been £31,000 – and allowed her to remain anonymous. Memorials to Bishop Bell were removed and institutions – such as the Bishop Bell School, Eastbourne – changed their names.
Unsurprisingly, there was outrage. On 13th November 2015, Judge Alan Pardoe QC described the way the allegations against Bishop Bell had been handled as “slipshod and muddled.” Judge Pardoe’s criticisms were followed by further censure from a group of historians and theologians led by Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
The Bishop of Chichester replied with insouciance and a volley of jargon to these criticisms: “The Church is seeking to move on from a culture in which manipulation of power meant that victims were too afraid to make allegations, or allegations were easily dismissed. We must provide safeguards of truth and justice for all, victim and accused alike.”
But there were no “safeguards of truth and justice” for Bishop Bell who was condemned without a hearing.
The outrage did not subside and a committee of senior church people, distinguished lawyers and members of both the Lords and the Commons calling itself The George Bell Group was formed. On 20th March 2016, this group published a review in which they challenged the Church’s evidence against Bishop Bell and attacked it for failing to find or interview a key witness or examine Bell’s own extensive personal archive.
On 30th June 2016, the case formed a large part of a debate in the House of Lords on historical child sex abuse.
On 28th June 2016, the Church of England announced that it would hold an independent review of the procedure used. On 22nd November 2016 it announced that Lord Carlile QC would chair this review
Meanwhile, the George Bell Group declared that they had discovered in the Church’s initial case against Bishop Bell “…enough to establish its severe limitations which render it quite inadequate as a basis for assessing the probability of Bishop Bell’s guilt. The scope of the independent experts’ inquiries was limited to a degree that made a proper analysis of the complainant’s allegations virtually impossible. What is more, little or no respect seems to have been paid to the unheard interests of Bishop Bell or his surviving family – a serious breach of natural justice.”
“In view of the evidence that we have gathered and examined, we have concluded that the allegation made against Bishop Bell cannot be upheld in terms of actual evidence or historical probability.”
Lord Carlile’s report was handed to the Church authorities two months ago and they kicked it into the long grass until last Friday.
So much for Bishop Martin Warner’s vaunted “…safeguards of truth and justice for all, victim and accused alike.” All along, the only interests being safeguarded here were those of the Church’s highest authorities in Chichester and Canterbury. We know very well why these authorities leapt so precipitately to condemn Bishop Bell out of hand: it was because they had previously had to admit to the existence of so many perpetrators of sexual abuse among the senior clergy they wanted desperately to appear to be doing something.
Thus the reputation of Bishop George Bell was tarnished because the Church’s highest authorities are seeking to cover their own backs.
Let us be in no doubt as to the seriousness of the Church’s conduct so eloquently set out in Lord Carlile’s report. To that phrase “hung out to dry,” he adds that the Church’s procedures were “deficient, inappropriate and impermissible”; “obvious lines of enquiry were not followed” and there was “a rush to judgement.”
In the light of this scandalously incompetent behaviour, the least that might be expected from the Archbishop of Canterbury is a profuse apology to Bishop Bell’s descendants, family, friends and numerous supporters for the distress his decisions have caused them. Is such an apology forthcoming? It is not. Instead Justin Welby persists in his mood of arrogant vindictiveness, saying, “……..A significant cloud is left over George Bell’s name. No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones…”
This is outrageous. True, Bishop Bell was “accused of great wickedness” – but he was not found guilty of any wrongdoing. And there is no “significant cloud” over his name. There is, however, certainly a very dark cloud over Welby’s name after his lamentable performance in this matter.
Well, there is still time: a whole week in which Justin Welby has opportunity to make his Confession before he celebrates Christmas Holy Communion.