17 December 2017 1:20 AM
If a saintly man can be branded a sex abuser, none of us is safe
This is Peter Hitchens’s Mail On Sunday column
If we won’t fight injustice wherever we see it, then we are not safe from suffering injustice ourselves. If a man’s reputation can be destroyed in an afternoon by a secret kangaroo court, then we too can one day be propelled into a pit of everlasting shame by the same process.
If it can happen to anyone, it can happen to you. And it does happen. Accusations of long-ago sexual crime have become a sort of industry in this country. People are so horrified by them that they almost always believe them.
Because the crime is so foul, we stop thinking. To their shame, police and prosecutors use our horror to get easy convictions, when they must know that their cases are weak. The less actual evidence they have, the more they stress the disgusting nature of the alleged crime. And they forget to remind us that it is alleged, not proved.
Equally shamefully, judges do not stop these trials and juries leave their brains at the door. They convict not because they are sure the case has been proved beyond reasonable doubt, but because they are angry and revolted.
I am miserably sure there are disturbing numbers of people in British prisons now, prosecuted on such charges, who are innocent of the accusations against them. It is our fault, because we have forgotten what justice is supposed to be like, and that, if we do not guard it in our hearts, it will perish in the country.
This is why I have spent a shockingly large part of my life in the past two years trying to rescue the reputation of a dead bishop, George Bell of Chichester. I had known of him for many years and thought him a man of saintly courage. I had also spent a very sunny part of an extraordinarily happy childhood in and around Chichester. I learned to be an Englishman, in many ways, in that beautiful, ancient city. Even so, when the Church of England publicly denounced him as a child abuser, I was astonished by the instinctive, molten fury that I then experienced. This was not just an opinion. It kept me awake at night.
Fortunately, I found allies who felt the same. At first slowly and then with gathering strength and confidence, we assembled the evidence which showed that grave wrong had been done. The Church of England, whose senior figures are astonishingly unimpressive and tricky, tried to smear us with false claims that we had attacked the complainant. But they failed, and at last grudgingly agreed to review the case.
When the review told them that they had run an incompetent, miserable kangaroo court and that they had condemned a great man on evidence too weak to hang a hamster, they sat sulkily on that report for nearly ten weeks, until they were jeered into releasing it.
Even then, when it came out on Friday, a Church which supposedly believes in penitence was still wriggling like a basket of embarrassed eels. The distinguished and impartial lawyer who conducted the review, Lord Carlile QC, made it quite plain that no court would have found George Bell guilty on the evidence (indeed, the Crown Prosecution Service would not even have brought it to court).
He concluded the Church had hung one of its greatest figures ‘out to dry’. He even said ‘if I had been prosecuting this case, I would have lost it’, which is as near as such a person could come to saying George Bell is innocent.
And what of the Church, supposedly the guardian of moral good? The Archbishop of Canterbury petulantly persisted in claiming, despite all the evidence, that there was still a ‘cloud’ over George Bell’s name. Lord Carlile remarked that this statement was ‘less than fully adroit’, which is QC-speak for something much ruder.
I will go further. Archbishop Welby had a chance to stand for moral courage against the easy, popular thing. And he did the easy, popular thing. George Bell, facing much sterner tests in much tougher times, repeatedly chose moral courage over popularity. And that is why Justin Welby is not fit to lace up George Bell’s shoes, and why his pretensions to be a moral leader of this country are taken less and less seriously by thinking people.