On Friday the Church of England released an independent review into how it handled an allegation of child sex abuse made against a bishop who died in 1958. This was no ordinary bishop. In the eyes of the historian Ian Kershaw, George Bell, the “impressive and extraordinary” bishop of Chichester between 1929 and 1958, was “possibly the most distinctive English clergyman of the 20th century”.
The review, though intricate, was also damning. Its author, Lord Carlile of Berriew, found that the investigation of the allegation made against Bell had been “inappropriate and impermissable” and resulted in a financial settlement which was “indefensibly wrong”.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, acknowledged the catalogue of great deeds that defined Bell’s public career but insisted that “a significant cloud” still hung over him. This he reinforced blandly but purposefully by adding: “No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness.”
Everyone has the right to think for themselves and one should not deny such a right to the archbishop. But it is clear that on this occasion he has entered dubious, if not discreditable, territory. Welby and the other bishops who commented on this case have not spoken as individuals but have invested the authority of their office in a shocking opinion. For them an allegation is something that takes on a life of its own and which can even be commended and perpetuated, regardless of due process and the presumption of innocence on which society depends.
In this matter at least, the church is an institution in the grip of a rigid “safeguarding” agenda which has acquired an almost ideological force. Into this context the figure of Bishop Bell has tumbled. How many others, living and dead, might be added?
Should the archbishop now possess the right and the moral authority to judge, let alone exonerate, when his eyes are more firmly fixed on the corporate constructions of the organisation over which he presides?
Justin Welby faces a crucial test in this matter. It is a test of his integrity as Archbishop of Canterbury. The cloud that hangs in the air today is not to be found over Bishop Bell, but over Lambeth Palace.
Andrew Chandler is the biographer of George Bell and is professor of modern history at the University of Chichester