23 November 2016 2:36 PM
Some Cause for Modest Hope in the George Bell Case
A year ago I could never have imagined the progress I and others would have made in obtaining justice for Bishop George Bell. At the end of October 2015, 57 years after his death, the Bishop was suddenly numbered among the child-abusers by an insinuation-packed but (on examination) surprisingly cautious statement from the Church he once adorned, and consigned to the outer darkness by media who preferred to assume guilt than abide by the principles of English justice.
The Church then turned a cold shoulder to any criticism of its behaviour. Its main reaction was to make false claims that the defenders of George Bell were attacking his accuser. One of those claims (the most direct and specific) has now been withdrawn by the Bishop of Chelmsford, as I recently described here (scroll down) http://hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk/2016/11/peter-hitchens-fifty-years-of-enlightened-jails-gave-us-one-thing-more-crime.html
Joining with the police, the Church acted as if it was a moral obligation to *believe* without question any allegation of this sort – an assumption which has since quite rightly got the police into deep trouble, not least in its apologies to Field Marshal Lord Bramall http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/13/exclusive-met-police-allowed-my-wife-to-die-without-knowing-i-wa/
The policy of *believing* accusers was wrong and should never have been adopted. Trials are the places where evidence is tested.
It is amazing that so many people in positions of responsibility simply do not understand the law of their own country. Yet it is plain that they do not.
This problem is just as serious in journalism. For (with the honourable exception of the BBC) the media refused to revise or moderate strikingly unanimous reports which had stated flatly that the late Bishop *was* a child abuser, which had not been proved to any legal standard, rather than the accurate truth that he had been accused of this crime. The Press Regulator IPSO refused to uphold complaints that their reporting was inaccurate, even though it plainly was. Had they done the same thing to a living person, they would have risked action for contempt of court and possibly defamation too. The IPSO complaints were disinterested and sought no money or recompense, just an admission that the original reports were as inaccurate as they were. I remain astonished and saddened by the behaviour of IPSO.
Death of course voids any *legal* protection against prejudice. But it does not cancel the moral duty on which the legal obligation rests.
By all the rules of natural justice, he was the subject of a single, ancient uncorroborated allegation, not a proven culprit. Significantly, there has not been a single further allegation against him in more than a year since, despite widespread national and local coverage of the case. This is rare in such matters.
Following the Bishop of Chelmsford’s retreat, the C of E has no finally announced a review of its own behaviour which is surprisingly wide-ranging and shows signs of caution and contrition I had not expected. Disappointingly, the Bishop supervising such matters (Peter Hancock, Bishop of Bath and Wells, still prejudicially refers to the accuser as ‘the survivor’. I strongly suggests he stops doing this.
But the terms of reference mainly (but not wholly) use the correct non-prejudicial term ‘complainant’ and so represent a retreat from the position as *reported* by the media (though it is still a puzzle as to how all the media reports jumped to the same conclusion).
Firstly, the chosen reviewer is a genuinely independent barrister of great experience and knowledge, not some C of E insider apparatchik unskilled in the law.
Reporting of this event has been (alas 0 less prominent than the original allegation, but reasonable prominent.
BBC Radio 4’s Today programme ( alas, in its earliest and least-heard segment) contained a substantial item 37 minutes into this : http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b084jq4g
The Daily Telegraph produced astory in its pages headed ‘Bishop may have been wrongly named as a paedophile’ – but only said this in its print edition. Online it was less striking
The Guardian (motto ‘Facts are sacred, comment is free’) , which was one of the most condemnatory newspapers at the beginning, and fiercely resisted any attempt to correct this, has not as far as I know covered any of the subsequent developments, including the George Bell group’s systematic and thorough rebuttal of the claims against Bishop Bell http://www.georgebellgroup.org/review/ , in its actual news pages, and I could find nothing in them today. Instead it had this online report
The BBC put it on its website
But I can also find nothing in ‘the Times’
The Brighton ‘Argus’ had this, including a Q&A with the reviewer
And the Chichester Observer ran this rather minor item (compared with the enormous acres it devoted to the original claim)
Even so, the main achievement of those who have campaign on George Bell’s behalf is that *nobody can now believe that the charge is proven or undisputed. Whether we can ever get further than that, and whether his name will ever be restored to the buildings and institutions which once bore it, and which have hastily removed it, remains to be seen.