02 July 2016 5:23 PM
The George Bell Affair is debated in the House of Lords
Last Thursday, the great day of Tory Turmoil, I was invited by Lord Lexden, the noted historian, to be one of his guests in the gallery for a House of Lords Debate on ‘Historical Child Sex Abuse’, in which he planned to bring up ( among others) the case of the late Bishop George Bell, often dealt with here.
It is always a treat to visit the Upper Chamber, the only legislative body in the world that I have ever thought it might be fun to belong to, which is also a paradise of Pugin design, hierarchy, red leather and monarchist and Christian symbolism (you can see why radicals hate it).
Lord Lexden is one of several prominent figures, including members of both Houses, lawyers, retired judges and police officers, churchmen and women, who believe the Church of England’s public condemnation of Bishop Bell without trial – and its subsequent attempts to turn him into a sort of unperson – is mistaken.
The Church now says, absurdly, that it acknowledges his great acts of selflessness and courage, which are proven, but that these have to stand equally beside the unproven claim that he abused a young girl, many years ago based upon a single ancient, uncorroborated and anonymous charge investigated in secret by persons unknown. And because of the unproven claim, his name has been removed from many institutions and buildings which it once adorned, because of the proven truth. Work that out, if you can.
My view is that such an act is wholly inconsistent with all that is known of George Bell, by people who knew him personally and by those who have made his life their study, but that if it were proven to be true beyond all reasonable doubt then his reputation would be at an end. Good is done in minute particulars. If a man can cruelly and dishonestly ruin a child’s life, using his authority to conceal his crime, then his other public deeds are dust.
The debate is mentioned briefly on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today in Parliament here (the passage begins at about 22 minutes into the programme, with the George Bell issue reached after 24 minutes)
and can be read in full here
Two days before the debate, the Church rather suddenly announced that it planned a review of its handling of the case. It says the review is routine, but at least one national media journalist was alerted by the church to the review, which is odd if it is routine.
Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, described the Church’s procedures as a kangaroo court, a phrase which clearly stung the C of E’s spokesman on the spot, the Bishop of Chelmsford, The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell. I have written to Bishop Stephen about part of his speech and expect to return to the subject here when I have seen his reply.
I was most taken by the contribution of Baroness Butler-Sloss, a distinguished lawyer and judge. I think she was very right to say that ‘I suggest that a distinction should be made between the management of allegations against a living person and those against one who is deceased.’
She added (and I have emphasised one passage) “The more improbable the event, the stronger must be the evidence that it did occur before, on the balance of probability, its occurrence will be established”.
‘Of course there will be cases where there is a strong body of evidence against a deceased person, but the words of the noble and learned Lord should be carefully considered.
‘The issue that causes me considerable concern is where the balance of probabilities is applied to historic cases of child abuse in which the alleged perpetrator is dead. I was taught as a young barrister “audi alteram partem”—that is, one has to hear both sides. Jimmy Savile may have been an exception because the volume of evidence of many, many victims built up to a horrifying degree, and there are other cases, but in general, with a few or particularly only one person making the allegation, however convincing, the authority or organisation dealing with the allegation has a duty to recognise that it may be able to get the story only from one side.
‘Consequently the authority, organisation or agency with the unenviable and difficult task of dealing with allegations against a person who may have died many years ago needs to have a policy and indeed a formula. In particular, it needs wording which makes it clear that it should listen to and recognise the seriousness of the allegations and give appropriate support to the person making those allegations, but that generally—I should perhaps say always—it should resist the temptation to say that the account is convincing and is to be believed. Even on the balance of probabilities, if one side cannot be heard, that in my view is a step too far.
‘The authority also has to be absolutely aware of the media’s ability to elaborate and distort the statements. Great, great care must be taken not to allow the media to convict the deceased alleged abuser based on the loose language used in the authority’s statement. I understand that the Church of England did not actually say that Bishop Bell was a sex abuser but it appears not to have taken steps to correct the media impression.’
I think this goes back to the beginning, and it si fascinating that a really fierce and sharp legal mind has identified exactly the same problem as the one that first struck me when this whole business started. The original statement in October 2015https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/10/statement-on-the-rt-revd-george-bell-(1883-1958).aspx did not state anywhere that George Bell’s guilt was proven. It couldn’t, because it wasn’t. So how did three national newspapers, two local papers and the BBC end up saying so?