The Archbishop of Canterbury has refused to retract a statement saying that a leading church figure of the 20th century had a “significant cloud” over his name because of allegations of child abuse, despite mounting pressure from historians who believe the claims are untrue.
Reinforcing comments he made last month about the former bishop of Chichester George Bell that the historians described as “irresponsible and dangerous”, Justin Welby described Bell as “one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century” but added: “I cannot with integrity rescind my statement.”
Welby pointed out that the Church of England had covered up or denied the abuse of children and vulnerable adults for decades.
In December an independent inquirycriticised the church for its handling of an accusation of child sexual abuse made against Bell, who died in 1958. The inquiry said the church had “rushed to judgment” and accepted claims against the bishop “without sufficient investigations”.
The church accepted nearly all the inquiry’s recommendations about its processes, but Welby said a “significant cloud” was left over Bell’s name.
Bell was once tipped as a possible archbishop of Canterbury, although his vocal opposition to the bombing of German civilians by the RAF during the second world war was thought to have counted against him.
Following the inquiry’s findings, the archbishop said: “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 good.”
Last week seven leading historians wrote to Lambeth Palace saying Welby’s comments were irresponsible and dangerous and “offend the most basic values and principles of historic understanding”.
The letter said the allegation against Bell was “not only wholly uncorroborated but is contradicted by all the considerable, and available, circumstantial material which any historian would consider credible.”
It added: “We urge you, in all sincerity, to repudiate what you have said before more damage is done.”
Among the letter’s signatories were Ian Kershaw, a leading authority on the Third Reich, and two biographers of former archbishops of Canterbury.
Responding to the letter, Welby said: “I cannot with integrity rescind my statement. Our history over the last 70 years has revealed that the church has covered up, ignored or denied the reality of abuse on major occasions … As a result, the church is rightly facing intense and concentrated scrutiny” in the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse (IICSA).”
Welby pointed out that a settlement made in 2015 to “Carol”, who first made an allegation of abuse against Bell in 1995, was based on the civil standard of proof, the balance of probability, rather than the criminal standard of proof, beyond reasonable doubt.
He said the church disagreed with the Bell inquiry’s suggestion that the settlement should have been made on condition of confidentiality.
“The confidentiality would have been exposed through the IICSA process, and the first question we would have faced, both about Bishop Bell and more widely, would have been: so what else are you concealing? The letter from the historians does not take into account any of these realities, nor the past failures of the church.”
Welby referred to the case of Peter Ball, the former bishop of Lewes and later of Gloucester, who is serving a prison sentence for sexual abuse. An independent inquiry into the Ball case concluded there had been collusion at the highest levels in the church to protect the bishop.
Welby’s statement on Monday said: “The experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic. But … the complaint about Bishop Bell does not diminish the importance of his great achievements and he is one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century.”
IICSA is to hear evidence into child sexual abuse in the Church of England in March.