The Archbishop of Canterbury has provoked a furious backlash by accusing supporters of a highly respected bishop of refusing to believe a historic child sex abuse allegation.
The Most Reverend Justin Welby has repeatedly declined to apologise for the shredding of the reputation of Bishop George Bell over a single, uncorroborated claim made by a woman dating back more than 60 years.
Archbishop Welby has been under pressure to say sorry following the publication of an independent report which concluded Bishop Bell’s reputation had been wrongly destroyed.
Senior academics had written an open letter to the Telegraph complaining that the archbishop had shamed his office with “irresponsible and dangerous” claims that Bishop Bell may have been a paedophile.
But the Archbishop issued a statement on Monday standing by his refusal to apologise and taking a sideswipe at Bishop Bell’s supporters. In it he likened the case of Bishop Bell, the former Bishop of Chichester, to another bishop Peter Ball, a convicted sex offender.
“I cannot with integrity rescind my statement.” he said, referring to an earlier claim that Bishop Bell had a “significant cloud… over his name” and that he had been accused of “great wickedness”.
Archbishop Welby said on Monday: “As in the case of Peter Ball, and others, it is often suggested that what is being alleged could not have been true, because the person writing knew the alleged abuser and is absolutely certain that it was impossible for them to have done what is alleged.
“As with Peter Ball this sometimes turns out to be untrue, not through their own fault or deceit but because abuse is often kept very secret.
“The experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic.”
Bishop Bell’s supporters reacted with fury and dismay, pointing out the claim against him is uncorroborated and made by one woman – known only as carol – decades after the alleged abuse.
Lord Carlile, who wrote an independent report commissioned by the archbishop, concluded that Bishop bell’s reputation was “wrongly and unnecessarily damaged by the Church”. The Church had paid Carol £16,800 damages and issued an apology in 2015.
Richard Symonds, of the Bell Society, said the archbishop should consider resigning, adding: “His stance is unforgivable.”
Martin Sewell, a retired child protection lawyer and a member of the general synod who will demand an apology when it meets next month, said: “This makes me extraordinarily angry. This statement makes your heart sink.”
A well-placed source inside the Church said: “There is widespread belief that he [Welby] has not shown an appropriate Christian approach in this case. There is a head of steam in the Church of England that could end up in his resignation over this.”
Bishop Bell, who died aged 75 in 1958, was one of the towering figure of the Church of England in the 20th century and was revered for his role in rescuing Jews from Nazi Germany before the war.
The allegation was first made by ‘Carol’ in 1995 some 38 years after his death and brought to Archbishop Welby’s attention in 2013.
Professor Tony Maden, a psychiatrist who examined her, said the “delays in reporting in this case are exceptional” and added that “memory is not reliable over such long periods of time”. He said “false memory” could not be ruled out as an explanation for her claim in the absence of any corroboration.