Seven eminent academics have written to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, expressing their ‘profound dismay’ at the ‘irresponsible and dangerous’ position he has taken on the late Bishop George Bell following a report into abuse claims.
The Church of England was criticised in the independent Carlile report published in December for a ‘rush to judgment’ in its handling of the allegations against Bishop Bell, the former Bishop of Chichester who died in 1958. The report by Lord Carlile said that although the Church acted in good faith, its processes were deficient and it failed to give proper consideration to the rights of the accused.
The signatories to the letter, leaked to the Daily Telegraph, now call on Archbishop Welby to retract comments he made in the wake of the report in which he said of Bishop Bell that a ‘significant cloud is left over his name’.
Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Third Reich, Professor Charmian Brinson, Professor Andrew Chandler, Professor John Charmley, Professor Michael J Hughes, Professor Jeremy Noakes and Professor Keith Robbins wrote: ‘None of us may be considered natural critics of an Archbishop of Canterbury.
‘But we must also draw a firm line. The statement of 15 December 2017 seems to us both irresponsible and dangerous.
‘We therefore urge you, in all sincerity, to repudiate what you have said before more damage is done and thus to restore the esteem in which the high, historic office to which you have been called has been held.’
Before the allegations were made public by the Church of England, Bishop Bell was known as a highly revered theologian who was widely regarded as a hero for his work helping victims of Nazi persecution.
But in a statement following the independent review by Lord Carlile of Berriew, Archbishop Welby left open the possibility that Bell was guilty, saying that he was ‘accused of great wickedness’ and apologised only ‘for the failures of the process’.
However, in an article today for Christian Today, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Peter Hancock, who is also the Church of England’s lead bishop for safeguarding, reiterates his apology on behalf of the CofE at the time of the Carlile report’s release, saying: ‘In my statement when the report was published last month I said that the Church has always affirmed and treasured Bishop Bell’s principled stand in the Second World War and his contribution to peace remains extraordinary.
‘Yet at same time, we have a duty and commitment to listen to those reporting abuse, to guard their confidentiality, and to protect their interests. We recognise that Carol (who brought the allegation of abuse) has suffered pain, as have surviving relatives of Bishop Bell. We are sorry that the Church has added to that pain through its handling of this case.’
Bishop Hancock emphasises in the article that the woman known as Carol ’emerges from this [Carlile] report as a person of dignity and integrity, and her welfare must continue to be fully respected’.
In their letter to Welby, the historians – including two biographers of former Archbishops of Canterbury – said that they ‘wish to express our profound dismay with the position you have taken’.
They write that the current Archbishop’s position ‘offends the most basic values and principles of historical understanding’.
They continue: ‘The allegation [against Bell] is not only wholly uncorroborated but is contradicted by all the considerable, and available, circumstantial material which any historian would consider credible.
The letter, which was delivered to the Archbishop yesterday, goes on: ‘We cannot understand how such an unsupported, indeed insupportable, allegation can be upheld by a responsible public authority. Quite simply, it is indefensible.’
In his statement, Welby had noted that Lord Carlile did not decide on guilt, but the academics point out he was deliberately prevented from doing so by the terms of reference that had been set out by the CofE.
They write: ‘We state our position bluntly. There is no credible evidence at all that Bishop Bell was a paedophile.
‘We state this after reviewing all that is known about his character and behaviour over many years.’
They conclude that Bell has been ‘impugned from within his own Church of England’, adding: ‘There is today no cloud at all over Bishop Bell. Nobody employing credible critical method could think otherwise.’
The letter in full
We are writing to you following the publication of Lord Carlile’s independent review of the case of Bishop George Bell and the public statement which you have issued in consequence. We wish to express our profound dismay with the position you have taken. We are all academic historians of the twentieth-century who have, over many years of university research, made our considered assessments of Bishop George Bell. Our many publications will speak for themselves. Lecturing students of history and teaching them the various crafts and responsibilities of credible historical analysis and interpretation has been central in our careers. We regard George Bell as a significant historical figure and our assessment of his life and career has been an important aspect of our academic work. On this basis we suggest that our collective view on these matters constitutes a genuine and very pertinent authority. In your public statement of 15 December 2017, the authority of your position was used to perpetuate a single allegation made against Bishop Bell, and you did so in face of the independent review which the Church itself commissioned. We believe that your statement offends the most basic values and principles of historical understanding, ones which should be maintained
firmly by those in positions of public authority across society. They must never be ignored or abused. You have insisted that a ‘significant cloud’ still hangs over Bishop Bell. It deepens the impression deliberately conveyed by previous Church statements by adding, purposefully: “No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness.” On what ground does such a statement now stand? In the past you have insisted that the Church’s view was based on an investigation that was ‘very thorough’. But Lord Carlile has plainly, and utterly, devastated this claim. Historians and lawyers both attach great importance to the presumption of innocence. Your comment seems to imply that a case against Bell has actually been established. It has not. History cannot be made out of allegations. It is the study of sources. Lord Carlile’s review sets out the material of the allegation for everyone to assess for themselves, and he invites them to do so. There is nothing in it that connects in any way with what is firmly known about Bishop Bell. The allegation is not only wholly uncorroborated but is contradicted by all the considerable, and available, circumstantial material which any historian would consider credible. Furthermore, even on its own terms we find it to depend wholly on scenarios which simply could not have occurred, given what is firmly known and authoritatively established. There is no credible representation of personalities, relationships, patterns or locations which is remotely recognisable. Far from enhancing the allegation, the insistence on vivid quotations undermines critically a testimony in which the experiences of infancy are ‘recollected’, not immediately but at a distance of many decades. Even a modest historical sensitivity would have established the basic implausibility of such a testimony. The material supporting this allegation does not in our view constitute a credible basis for the writing of history and it flies in the face of our customary critical method. It represents something quite different, an unhistorical, indeed anti-historical, testimony, explicable, perhaps, but in different terms. We cannot understand how such an unsupported, indeed insupportable, allegation can be upheld by a responsible public authority. Quite simply, it is indefensible. You have written that Lord Carlile’s review does not pronounce whether Bishop Bell was guilty or not. Yet the Terms of Reference by which Lord Carlile was invited to work by the Church itself deliberately excluded this. Now we do not believe that your office in itself gives you the authority to pronounce on
the reputation of Bishop Bell in the manner you have done. We are prepared, in this letter, to claim that authority. We state our position bluntly. There is no credible evidence at all that Bishop Bell was a paedophile. We state this after reviewing all that is known about his character and behaviour over many years. This letter is not the place to set that assessment out in detail but in the further consideration which must now be surely given we would be very willing to set it out clearly. We note, and emphasize, that there was never so much as a whisper of such an allegation in his lifetime. It is the testing of accusations which shows the integrity of a society, not the making of them. It is in no way to impugn the sincerity of the complainant, or to resist the claims of compassion, to say that the allegation seems to us self- evidently mistaken. We believe that the historical figure of George Bell is safe in the hands of historians even though, very sadly, it would appear to have been impugned from within his own Church of England. There is today no cloud at all over Bishop Bell. Nobody employing credible critical method could think otherwise. Two of us are biographers of former Archbishops of Canterbury and we all acknowledge the many difficulties and pressures which any archbishop must face, not least in a position which Archbishop Lang once called ‘incredible, indefensible and inevitable’. None of us may be considered natural critics of an Archbishop of Canterbury. But we must also draw a firm line. The statement of 15 December 2017 seems to us both irresponsible and dangerous. We therefore urge you, in all sincerity, to repudiate what you have said before more damage is done and thus to restore the esteem in which the high, historic office to which you have been called has been held.
Professor Charmian Brinson
Professor Andrew Chandler
Professor John Charmley
Professor Michael J Hughes
Professor Sir Ian Kershaw
Professor Jeremy Noakes
Professor Keith Robbins