01 October 2016 3:45 PM
The Continuing Campaign for Justice for the late Bishop George Bell
It’s almost a year now since an allegation of child abuse against the late Bishop George Bell was publicised by the Church of England and the Sussex Police, ably abetted by three national newspapers, two local newspapers and the BBC.
The resulting headlines, in which it was stated as fact that Bishop Bell ( who died in 1958) had been a paedophile more than 60 years ago, are still on the record, though the BBC has commendably pulled back from its initial certainty and the newspapers involved, in their various ways, have mostly learned to be a little more cautious about presuming the Bishop’s guilt.
For what we now know is this. The complainant, who remains anonymous, made her allegation many years after the alleged events and many years after the death of the Bishop.
Her claim was uncorroborated. No other similar claims have been made by anyone else.
A living witness who worked and lived with George Bell and his wife at the time of the alleged crimes (but who was neither found nor consulted by the Church of England, though it must have had records showing that he had been Bishop Bell’s chaplain, and he could easily be traced through Crockford’s Clerical Directory) strongly disputes the accusation and regards it as impossible. Others, familiar with the buildings involved, have identified apparent inconsistencies in the accounts given by the accuser in an interview she provided to one local newspaper.
No details have been given of the procedure by which the Church (wholly in private) decided to accept that Bishop Bell was guilty. Indeed, from public statements made by the Bishop of Durham it is not even clear that the Church did accept his guilt, though the Church, after the Bishop of Durham’s remarks in the House of Lords were widely publicised, tried to say that he had not meant what he had said.
There is as yet no evidence that the Church asked anyone to defend Bishop Bell at this secret hearing, or that it even considered such a defence necessary. The C of E described the payment it made as a civil settlement (to distinguish it from a criminal case in which the burden of proof is greater and the presumption of innocence is explicit).
But civil causes also require the court to hear both parties in any dispute, and require the plaintiff to prove his case, while being opposed by the defendant’s advocate. No such thing happened. There has been no civil case and no criminal case either, just a marsupial committee meeting, in which guilt appears to have been presumed. The law does not provide any way of protecting a man’s reputation once he is dead. But morals seem to me to demand that we are careful about such things, and I’ve been astonished to see reputable media, and the Independent Press Standards Organisation, totally unmoved by the idea that a dead man is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Nobody was demanding money or any other costly reparation from them – only an admission that they’d treated allegation as fact and that this was wrong.
The C of E’s amazing statement that it ‘found no reason to doubt’ the claims was a demonstration that it does not understand English law. So was its use of the police and their meaningless declaration that had he been alive, Bishop Bell would have been arrested. There is always a reason to doubt any accusation of wrongdoing until it has been proven. It cannot be considered proven if it has not been tested in an adversarial courtroom in which the defendant has a voice. The trouble is, millions of English people those days don’t understand the law of the land, either.
The C of E has repeatedly stated that it had to publicise the matter because, had it not done so, others would have done. It has never explained who these others are, or why. Given the long delay and the solitary nature of the accusation, it is hard to see what purpose was served by publicising it, save to give the impression of decisive action. But if it had to do so, why could it not have scrupulously said that it was only an allegation, rather than producing a statement so worded that media felt (in my view wrongly) justified in reporting it as a fact?
By dint of much campaigning I and several others have managed to establish that the accusation is just that, an accusation. It may never be proven. It may, equally, never be disproved, and indeed I find it hard to see how we shall ever know for certain either way. But the smear, as I regard it, remains smeared, the memory of George Bell is still defaced, his name has been removed from schools and buildings, and there is no reason to assume that the unpersoning campaign will stop there.
This Monday, 3rd October, the 58th anniversary of his death, sees the day in the Church calendar on which his life and work are commemorated. No doubt there will be some who will wish to put a stop to this, in the spirit of the Church’s behaviour so far.
Others feel differently. At 4.00 p.m. on Monday there will be a special service in his memory (Prayer Book choral evensong) at the City Church of St Michael’s , Cornhill.
This Sunday, 2nd October, supporters of Bishop Bell in Chichester itself plan a brief reading of the last act of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, in which I hope to take part, at 6.30 p.m. at the Friends’ meeting House in Priory Lane, Chichester. Some of you may know that George Bell (a vigorous promoter of all the arts, unusual for a Churchman of his era) played a great part in encouraging Eliot to write this play, and in arranging for its first performance in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, where he was Dean. It is a fitting way of marking the event, and of insisting that hasty judgement, in any age, is a mistake.