As the ‘Independent (of whom?) Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’ sinks up to its axles, I wish to return to one fascinating corner of the gigantic Kangaroo Court which this country has now become.
I have been deeply engaged in a small but important part of the battle between truth and innuendo, and between the presumption of guilt (now made by almost everyone) in abuse cases versus the presumption of innocence (which is the glory of our law and a foundation of our freedom).
This is the accusation, now more than a year old, against the late George Bell, long ago Bishop of Chichester. I admire Bishop Bell’s selfless actions against various sorts of oppression, stupidity and mistaken acts of war, which made him unpopular in his lifetime (as any serious Christian must expect to be). These actions probably cost him the Archbishopric of Canterbury, a post he would have adorned. I think his example of genuine Christian courage is a rare and valuable thing, and that it should not lightly be thrown away.
This charge is too important to be left untested
I therefore require that, if he is to be charged with the terrible crime of child abuse, that charge is properly examined proven beyond reasonable doubt before we accept its truth. For if it is true, the rest of his reputation crumbles to ashes and filth. For as the Bible tells us ‘Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.’
I do not say that he is not guilty. I do not say that he should be considered simultaneously an exemplar of Christian courage and a paedophile|(for me an impossible combination). I say that a charge as serious as this must be properly examined before it is accepted. And it hasn’t been.
Like the late Lord Brittan and the late Sir Edward Heath, Bishop Bell is not here to defend himself against the charges levelled against him.
But unlike them, he faces accusations made 60 years after the alleged events (supposedly around 1948-52), and more than half a century after his death (1958). A full summary of the controversy can be found here:
The George Bell Group’s forensic analysis of the case can be found here. The group includes, among others, a former senior judge with experience of abuse cases, and a retired senior police officer.
This is the defence which might have been mounted had the accusations ever come to trial. But despite idle claims by the Church of England that there had been a civil process, no such hearing took place. Even that (though short of the full protection of a criminal trial) would have required an impartial judge sitting in open court, and lawyers representing the accused who could have cross-examined his accusers.
A Secret Hearing with No Defence
All that happened was a secret hearing at which no advocate defended his name. The anonymous committee concluded that there was ‘no reason to disbelieve’ the charges – but there is always a reason to disbelieve any charge. It is called ‘The Presumption of Innocence’. How can they not have known? How indeed? These people have inherited a great treasure, which sits on a table before them, yet they do not known they own it, let alone how to use it.
The Church’s approach has been (let us be polite here) very confused. Here is its initial statement https://www.churchofengland.org/media-centre/news/2015/10/statement-on-the-rt-revd-george-bell-(1883-1958).aspx
A Slippery Document
This slippery document gave the strong impression that George Bell was guilty as charged, without at any stage unequivocally saying so. A mystery remains as to why, even so, three national newspapers, the BBC and two local newspapers all somehow formed the impression that it was a clear statement of guilt and published stories declaring the Bishop guilty from which only the BBC has since (to its credit) climbed down.
Coincidence theory (that there are lots of coincidences and that this is *much* more likely than that anyone has privately acted to achieve the apparently co-ordinated result we see, which would of course be a ‘conspiracy theory’ and therefore mad) is, as so often, helpful here.
Arresting Dead People is a Waste of Time
The statement took pains to mention that the Sussex Police said they ‘would have arrested’ Bishop Bell, had he been alive. This statement, we now know, was made at the request of the Church. The police in fact have almost no involvement in charges against dead people, because they cannot be tried and there is therefore no point in arresting or charging them, or in gathering evidence against them. Their only involvement in such cases is to see if anyone still alive might be affected. Given that the charges relate to alleged events almost 70 years ago, this is unlikely. And an arrest is not in any way evidence let alone proof of guilt. Alas, as hardly anyone in the upper reaches of English society understands English law any more, this simple fact has been little noted.
A Prelate in two minds?
The Bishop of Durham then said that the Church had not actually said it thought Bishop Bell was guilty.
Then he, or someone acting on his behalf, announced that actually it had. See here:
Eventually, at the end of June, the distinguished historian Lord (Alistair) Lexden and others obtained a debate in the House of Lords about historic abuse, in which the George Bell case was a major topic. You may read it here
Another of those Coincidences
By another of those coincidences, two days before this debate, the Church announced an ‘Independent review’ into the Bell matter. See here
As of today (Wednesday 16th November 2016, almost five months after this announcement) *no further action has been taken on this review* . Can it really be so hard to find anyone independent enough to do it? Have they tried New Zealand?
During the debate, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell (probably new to the case) promised : ‘I need the House to be clear that we are not marking our own homework. The reviewer who will undertake this review is independent.’
A sharp intake of breath
He also said (and if his hearing is good he will have heard my involuntary sharp intake of breath from the gallery where I was sitting when he said it ) that George Bell’s accuser had spoken to the press ‘because some in the George Bell Group had made hurtful comments about her.’
Now, I am familiar with all the members of the George Bell Group, to which I don’t formally belong but of which I am an open sympathiser. We have been united in the view that we feel every sympathy with the alleged victim. We have not criticised her. We have not criticised the award of compensation to her, or the sympathetic treatment of her by the Church. These are all perfectly reasonable actions in the circumstances . The allegation was made long after the alleged events (which she says took place when she was a child) but it is still a very serious one.
They have to accept he might be innocent. We have to accept he might be guilty
Just as the Church has to accept that her accusation remains an allegation until proven beyond reasonable doubt, Bishop Bell’s defenders have to accept that it might one day be so proved.
How English Law works – a brief guide
This is how English law works. The court automatically tries the facts as they can be ascertained and proved. If you or I accuse someone of robbing or harming us, however plain it seems to you or me that the accused is guilty, the police and the courts will (quite rightly) insist on treating him or her as innocent until proven guilty, or until he or she admits the charge. It is not an insult to you or me to do so. It is simply justice. Nor is it hurtful for the accused person’s lawyer to cross examine you or me on our evidence. That too is justice. We would expect the same if we were the accused.
I wrote personally to the Bishop after he said this, asking him what ‘hurtful remarks’ he was referring to. The Church’s bureaucracy intervened at this point, but of course, as there had been no such remarks, they eventually had to admit that the words spoken in the Lords had been wrong. There was then a blood-out-of-a-stone series of exchanges which led us eventually to this on 4th August : ‘…he [The Bishop] acknowledges that what he actually said was mistaken, hence the clarification explaining what he meant to have said but he stands by everything else in the speech. He is happy to be quoted on all of that. When the new parliamentary term begins he promises to look into how a proper clarification can be produced.’
Blood out of a stone
This followed these words issued to me on 28th July :’ I can clarify that when Bishop Stephen said in the House of Lords that ‘some in the Bell Group had made hurtful comments’ about ‘Carol’, it would have been more precise to say that these were comments that she found hurtful. I know Bishop Stephen is happy to be quoted as such, and also happy to acknowledge that he did not intend to suggest that legitimate questions about this case could not be posed by all sides. I hope that was apparent by the tone and content of the rest of his speech where he endeavoured to take seriously and listen carefully to the concerns being raised. Of course in this process people get hurt, even if no hurt was ever intended.’
Well, of course what someone ‘finds hurtful’ is up to them. But it is very different to find something hurtful, as a result of a process of justice which requires the testing and proof of all allegations, and to be the object of deliberately hurtful remarks intended to be so.
I am still not sure what these ‘comments’ were, though I must assume they were the efforts of those in the George Bell Group to assert the ancient rules of justice and point out that a charge which was not proven must be treated as an allegation.
The new Parliamentary term in the Lords began a month ago (on 10th October), but the Bishop has been on a rather long period of sabbatical leave, which apparently prevents him from addressing the matter. This ended last week, but despite several requests I have yet to hear anything, nor has he yet put the record straight in the Lords itself.
My reason for pursuing this is that the Bishop’s allegation is, as it were a protruding and vulnerable part of the whole absurd mistake they made from the start, in presuming George Bell’s guilt.
Today’s Forecast: Spin and bluster
The rest of their error was made in private, or concealed behind vague and ambiguous spin and bluster of the sort described and quoted above.
But here is an actual public and demonstrable untruth, in urgent need of correction, resulting directly from, and clearly demonstrating the Church’s pitiful misunderstanding of the law. It is the tiny tip of an enormous iceberg of error and misunderstanding. But it is that which projects above the dark waters where we can see it.
That, I suspect, is why the Bishop finds it so difficult to own up and say, in the House of Lords or anywhere else, that the accusation of ‘hurtful remarks’ is not true, why my letters to him were answered by bureaucrats and why he has taken so long. I suspect his fellow Bishops, especially those more involved in this case, are worried at the prospect. To do so would be to accept, for the very first time, that they had wandered into error by presuming and assuming things that suited them.
Yet he must admit it, sooner or later. For that is what they did.