Dec 31 2017 – “Bishop George Bell: the saga continues (4)” – ‘Bats in the Belfry’ – Christopher Hill


Christopher Hill

Bishop George Bell: the Church’s failure (4)

The publication by the Church of England of Lord Carlile’s review was accompanied by three episcopal statements. I look today at those by the Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Dr Warner contends that “Lord Carlile’s Independent Review is a demonstration of the Church of England’s commitment to equality of justice and transparency in our safeguarding practice.”

This opening remark is ambiguous. Does Dr Warner mean that the report itself demonstrates …? If so, he is clearly mistaken, since the report does nothing to strengthen the Church’s reputation for seeking justice.

Or does he mean that the fact that the he asked for a report to be compiled demonstrates…etc? In that case his account is partial, for without public pressure the Church would not have perceived any need for a review.

Dr Warner goes on to apologise for the Core Group’s deficiencies, and seems to think that improving Its protocols will help in future. But the Core Group’s failure was nothing to do with protocols. It stemmed from lack of direction, (which the Bishop could have remedied) and from muddled thinking, which he could have prevented.

Warner refers to the complexity of the case, before making the statement that “The emotive principle of innocent until proven guilty is a standard by which our actions are judged…”Did he really mean ‘emotive’? Was the case really so complex?

Warner’s next remark is even more striking: “Irrespective of whether she is technically a complainant, survivor, or victim, ‘Carol’ emerges from this report as a person of dignity and integrity. It is essential that her right to privacy continues to be fully respected.”

Can he possibly have meant to write ‘technically’? The distinction between a complainant on the one hand, and a survivor or victim on the other is very far from technical, if by ‘technical’ is meant ‘unimportant’.

It is mysterious that Warner emphasises the need for the complainant’s privacy to be respected. The law is well known to all concerned, and none of the critics of the Church’s procedures has sought to break it.

Dr Warner concludes: “The good deeds that Bishop George Bell did were recognised internationally. They will stand the test of time. In every other respect, we have all been diminished by the case that Lord Carlile has reviewed.”

As I have remarked before, he is surely wrong to allege that we are ALL diminished. What is clear is that the reputations of those who lent themselves to the Church’s handling of the case have been diminished.

We come, finally, to a statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, which also accompanied Lord Carlile’s report. He begins that “Bishop George Bell is one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century. The decision to publish his name was taken with immense reluctance, and all involved recognised the deep tragedy involved. “

Lord Carlile’s account of the proceedings of the Core Group, the body that took the decision, does not indicate any great reluctance in its members, nor any deep sense of tragedy.

Welby correctly says that Carlile does not pronounce on whether or not Bell was guilty, but fails to point out that the question of guilt was not in his terms of reference.

He does apologise for the failures of the Church’s procedures, but spoils the effect by adding “We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name…No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good. Whatever is thought about the accusations, the whole person and whole life should be kept in mind.”

Welby here gives the impression that, if he has read Carlile’s review, it has not dented his determination to leave open the question of Bell’s guilt. It seems not to have occurred to him that, if there is a cloud over Bell’s name, it is there because the hierarchy allowed it to gather and has done nothing to remove it.

There are two more questions. Why are these prelates so obstinately wedded to their non-committal approach to the question of Bell’s guilt or innocence, and what can they do to salvage their reputations?

One possible answer to the first question is that the bishops know some real facts which remained unknown to Lord Carlile, and which they believe allow them to leave the door open to Bell’s guilt. That explanation seems too far-fetched for an otherwise prosaic group of men.

Yet they are not stupid men, and cannot be ignorant of the acrimony and disappointment that they have caused. Perhaps they are simply the victims (survivors?) of habit, in other words they are used to thinking of Bell as guilty; of collegiality, meaning that a self-reinforcing consensus has grown up among them and of pride, which speaks for itself.

As for their reputations, we must hope that the Archbishop will take note of the Bell fiasco in the book that he is writing on values, and that the whole subject will be fully aired at the Synod in February.

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