20 December 2017 11:15 AM
Acquitted and Vindicated – but his Reputation is Still in Prison. The Church’s Duty to George Bell
Firstly may I thank contributors for their kind words about the George Bell issue, and the outcome (so far) of the campaign to clear this great man’s name of the unproven accusations so vigorously spread about him, as if they were proven facts, by the Church of England. I hope readers will forgive me for this further posting on the subject. As I said at the press conference at which George Bell’s name was cleared, matters are by no means finished. It is as if Captain Dreyfus’s wife had been summoned to a press conference given by the French Army, which had there admitted that it had condemned her husband on paltry evidence after an incompetent and prejudiced court martial, and that the case against him could not stand – but that he would have to remain indefinitely imprisoned on Devil’s Island because the Commander in Chief still felt there was a ‘cloud’ over his name.
George Bell’s reputation is still on Devil’s Island. No formal action has been taken to reverse the Stalinoid process by which his name was removed from buildings, institutions and guide books. These are: George Bell House, a guest house in Chichester cathedral close donated to the Cathedral in his memory by Anglican nuns who loved Bell greatly, and opened by Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury; a hall of residence at the University of Chichester; the house named after Bishop Bell at Bishop Luffa School, Chichester; the school formerly named after him at Eastbourne, now renamed St Catherine’s College, to which he travelled shortly before his death to bless, though extremely frail, dying very soon afterwards; the Chichester cathedral souvenir guide book, from which many references to the Bishop have been removed in the latest edition. I still possess the former guide, is anyone should need to check it for purposes of comparison. A statue of George Bell also sits unfinished in the stoneyard of Canterbury Cathedral, where he was a very distinguished Dean. The statue was abandoned when the claims against George Bell were first publicised.
These are in a way small matters – in themselves. But their restoration now become hugely important as a sign that the presumption of innocence once more prevails. Yet no plaques or names have been restored. Work has not resumed on the statue. All the bodies involved mumble that they are ‘considering ‘ the matter, with the exception of the Eastbourne School which, for unconnected reasons, has a strong desire to change its name which predated the accusations against George Bell, and says firmly it will not reverse the decision. If this is really so, perhaps Bishop Luffa school in Chichester could expiate its former action, in expunging George Bell’s name from one of its houses, by naming itself after Bishop Bell, who one might think has more relevance to modern Christian education than the mediaeval Luffa.
But in any case, what is there to discuss. An injustice has been done, one of the most distinguished public lawyers in the country has said it is an injustice after a thorough investigation, and so it must be corrected. Imagine if, after the Appeal Court had ruled that (say) the convictions of the Birmingham Six could not stand, the governors of the prisons involved said they would be ‘considering’ the matter, and might or might not release them at some stage depending on what they felt about it. What would be the response to that? If those involved have yet to read the Carlile Report (it takes about 90 minutes), the link to it and the (fascinating) annexe are displayed below. Once they have done so, they will find there is nothing left to discuss.
I might add that, the last time I checked with her, no formal apology form the Bishop of Chichester or the Archbishop of Canterbury had been received by Mrs Barbara Whitley, George Bell’s surviving niece, who woke one morning to find, without any warning, that her beloved uncle’s name had been smeared all over the media by the ‘strident voices’ of the Church of England. These prelates unceasingly proclaim their concern for the complainant, similarly an elderly woman deserving courtesy and consideration. But the complainant has always been (and will always remain) anonymous. Mrs Whitley has had to endure this in the blazing light of total publicity.
The Church’s statements, the review and the fascinating annexe can all be found here :
As my contribution to the continuing campaign for justice to be done in full, I sent the letter below to the Bishop of Chichester, the Right Reverend Dr Martin Warner, on Monday, saying I intended to publish it here as an open letter. Now that he has had time to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest its contents, I commend it to you to:
I wonder if I could resume our correspondence (terminated by you on 19th January 2017), now that the Carlile Report has been published and considered by you. In this case, however, I propose to publish this letter on my Mail on Sunday blog, so that my readers are aware of the questions I have long raised with you, and the new ones I must now raise with you following the Carlile review.
I am still mainly concerned with your attack on supposedly ‘strident voices’ raised in defence of Bishop Bell, which you suggested had distressed the anonymous complainant. May I draw your attention to my article on the subject in the Spectator of 17th November 2015? It can be read with ease here: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/the-church-of-englands-shameful-betrayal-of-bishop-george-bell/ .
In it I was extremely careful to accept the possibility of Bishop Bell’s guilt, and to say specifically ‘By all means comfort and assuage the accuser, and compensate him or her’. This was a conscious act of charity towards the accuser, whom I have never blamed for the mistreatment of George Bell’s memory. I understood from the start that any examination of this case should not become an attack upon the accuser, nor (except in the minds of the Church) has it ever been such an attack. Please contrast the Church’s treatment of Bishop Bell’s surviving niece, Mrs Barbara Whitley (see p.33 of the Carlile review, para 142). She had to endure the ‘strident voices’ of the Church of England publicly parading deeply painful allegations against her beloved uncle, presented as fact, and quite without the shield of anonymity rightly given to Carol. You had not even bothered to find out if Mrs Whitley existed. Matthew VII, 3-5 comes to mind.
I suspect that the Bishop of Chelmsford’s false accusation that George Bell’s supporters had made ‘hurtful remarks’ about Carol, made in the House of Lords when the poor man was expected to respond to the long-planned debate there after an inadequate briefing, resulted from this original accusation by you. The false accusation has still not been formally retracted in the Lords, though the Bishop of Chelmsford did after some hesitation eventually apologise to me personally, allowing me to forgive him as Our Lord urges us to do in Luke XVII, 3-4.
I’d add to this attempt to use the complainant as a shield against accusations of wrongdoing in the Church’s part your needless call for all to respect the ‘right to privacy’ of Carol made at the Church House press conference on Friday. What was the purpose of this call? When was any attempt ever made to invade her privacy? I still think you need to regret this accusation.
You have also asserted that the original statement issued on 22nd October 2015 did not state George Bell’s guilt, and you blame the media involved for presuming this. In response to this I raise several points. The first is that all media given the statement concluded that you were asserting Bishop Bell’s guilt. How did this happen? Partly to blame must be the unwarranted use of the prejudicial word ‘survivor’ and a generally incautious use of language which (had Bishop Bell been alive and a court case pending or in progress) would have put those involved at risk of action for contempt of court. We must also wonder what confidential briefings may have been given to the media by persons speaking for the Church, to the journalists involved, who those persons were, what instructions and advice they had been given by the Church and what they said. I cannot know this, though as a journalist of many years’ experience I find it hard to believe that no such briefings took place. Did they? What was said by whom and to whom?
Also at fault is the claim in the statement that the Bishop, had he been alive, would have been arrested (Annex to the Carlile report, Page 36, paragraph 23; see also the main report, paras 132 and 133 on page 31, and para 167 on page 44). There was in fact no real police inquiry (see para 139 on p.32).We now know from the Sussex police that this statement was solicited by the Diocese from them, and not made on their own initiative. Please see the words of Det Supt J.D. Graves, in his response to my complaint to them on behalf of Mrs Whitley ‘My understanding….’, wrote Detective Superintendent Graves:
‘….is that the Diocese of Chichester notified Sussex Police that they planned to release a statement to the media. It was never our intention to be proactive (my emphasis); in other words, there was no intention to release a police statement about the alleged criminality of Bishop Bell (my emphasis). However, we were asked by the Diocese to make a statement (my emphasis) as they had decided to make this information public and so we provided them with a statement for inclusion in their press release on the basis that once the Diocese published their statement a natural consequence would be a media request to the police for comment’.
Did you not expect this misleading detail in the statement, which had been actively sought by you, to impute guilt to George Bell? In dozens of conversations with fellow-journalists and others about this matter, every single one of them has pointed (unprompted by me) to the claim that George Bell would have been arrested as being the thing which persuaded him or her that the case against him was serious. If it was not intended to insinuate this, what is it doing there at all?
You said on Friday, and yet again in your Radio 4 interview on Sunday that you had never proclaimed George Bell’s guilt. On Radio 4, you said ‘What we did not do and have not ever done is to make a clear statement which says “We have found George Bell guilty”. We have never done that’.
I must ask, in that case, why you did not write to The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC, the Argus of Brighton or the Chichester Observer, correcting their reports of your statement, reports which proclaimed that George Bell was guilty? Is it possible that you did so and they ignored your letters? Or did you choose to leave the impression of guilt which your statement had created, which you now insist you had not intended to create? Had you written to complain, it would have been very helpful to my own unending efforts to get these media to change their tune. Only one, the BBC, which had inaccurately used the specific term ‘proven abuse’ in a TV report and so gone further than the others, ever admitted that it had wrongly stated Bishop Bell’s guilt. All the others used your statement, and above all the claim that Bishop Bell would have been arrested, to argue that they were right to treat the statement as a declaration of guilt. The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) took the same view when I and others took the matter to them. I should also remind you of what happened when I drew attention to the Bishop of Durham’s statement in the House of Lords on 28thJanuary 2016, in which he said ‘that there has been no declaration that we are convinced that this [alleged abuse by Bishop Bell] took place’. As the Bishop was then in charge of ‘safeguarding’, this seemed to me to be a highly significant development and perhaps a retreat from the original claim of 22nd October. I thought it might be the basis of a revision of the Church’s original position.
However, after Charles Moore and I had both drawn attention to it in early February 2016, Church House issued this statement on behalf of the Bishop of Durham http://cofecomms.tumblr.com/post/138915810902/statement-from-bishop-of-durham-on-george-bell . It contained these unequivocal words. ‘The church therefore, having evaluated the evidence before them, accepted the veracity of the claims before them.’ In case there was any doubt, it added:
‘But in this case, as in others, the overriding goal was to search out the truth and issues of reputation cannot take priority over that.’ (both emphases are mine).
I am unable to square the words ‘The church therefore, having evaluated the evidence before them, accepted the veracity of the claims before them.’ with your statements exemplified by the one you made on Sunday 17th December ‘What we did not do and have not ever done is to make a clear statement which says “We have found George Bell guilty”. We have never done that’.
Since it is clear that the Church *has* stated that it ‘accepted the veracity’ of the claims made against George Bell’; since it publicised inaccurate claims that he would have been arrested, now shown to be wrong; since (para 17, p.5) Lord Carlile states that the CPS evidential charging standard would not have been met and stated at the press conference that, on this evidence, he would have lost the case had he prosecuted it; since the claim made in the October 2015 statement that there had been a ‘thorough pre-litigation process’ has been shown in detail to be a nonsense; likewise the Bishop of Chelmsford’s assertion in the House of Lords (30th June 2106) that this had been a ‘prayerful, careful, sensitive and serious investigation’ now looks embarrassing, though it should be said there is at least no reason to dispute his characterisation of it as ‘prayerful’
And peerhsa most shocking of all, since the publication of Professor Maden’s report shows that the October 2015 statement’s assertion that ‘none of these reports found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim’ is simply, straightforwardly untrue….
…In the light of all these matters, it seems to me that the issue is very far from closed. A great deal of restitution still needs to be done, and it was not even attempted on Friday. It would help if the Church admitted in detail just how wrong it had in fact been, instead of trying to change the subject or to pretend that it has not done things that it has done.
By the way, you also stated in your Sunday BBC interview that ‘no plaques that I am aware of have been blanked out’. This is most odd. During a visit to Chichester in November 2015, my wife and I walked down Canon Lane and there saw that the plaque saying ‘George Bell House’ was covered by some sort of industrial plastic material, similar to that used in bin bags. I am pleased to learn that this Stalinist action was done without your knowledge or consent. But I must assure you that it was done. The plaque itself, as you must know, was later entirely removed, as was the one inside George Bell House commemorating the fact that Archbishop Rowan Williams had opened George Bell House. The interior plaque has now been replaced by one which pretends that the Archbishop opened ‘4 Canon Lane’, which is not true. Likewise (as you were not asked about in the interview) many mentions of George Bell have been excised from the Cathedral guide book, his name has been removed from the House which used to bear it at Bishop Luffa school where I should think you might have some influence, and also from a hall of residence at the University of Chichester. I pointed out to you last Friday that even the Soviet Union had eventually rehabilitated those whom it had unjustly condemned in unfair show trials (whose memories, names and pictures were likewise removed from buildings, streets, photographs, encyclopaedias and so forth). The Church of England is surely judged by (and should regulate itself by) a higher standard than an atheist secret police state.