22 January 2018 5:23 PM
What Does the Archbishop Think He is Doing?
I cannot say that I care much who occupies the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church of England, for me, has a ghostly existence in poetry, music, arches and stained glass, quite independent of the banal persons who tend to hold this post. It’s not for me to go round calling for resignations or such things. My only concern with the man who currently holds this office is the pointless, easily cured injustice he has done to the great George Bell, to those who rightly revere him for Christian self-sacrifice and true moral and civil courage over great issues,, and to his surviving niece, Mrs Barbara Whitley. I know this is an unpopular preoccupation, obscure to many of my readers. But it is based on a universal, simple desire for justice to be done and truth told, wherever possible.
But those who do care about the C of E’s temporal structures and authority must surely be worried about the behaviour of the current Archbishop, the Most Revd Justin Welby. Mr Welby will not climb down from his assertion that a ‘significant cloud’ still hangs over the name of George Bell. Why not? What good does this stance do him or the Christian faith? What, in short, is he on about?
On Monday afternoon, after being the target of powerful criticism by a group of eminent historians, and then by a group of eminent theologians, he issued an astonishingly unyielding statement on the subject.
Yet I can find nothing in this text to justify his position. He refers repeatedly to the wholly different case of a living Bishop, Peter Ball, convicted beyond doubt, in an open court of law, of sexual offences.
In an astonishing passage, he responds to the concerns of the historians, who are urging him to reconsider, by ludicrously comparing them to emotional defenders of Ball. He says ‘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.’
What sort of non-logic is this? It may *have been* suggested, before Ball was convicted and sent to prison, that what was alleged could not have been true. But is there any serious person (as serious as, for instance, Sir Ian Kershaw) who is suggesting it now? Who? How can Mr Welby possibly compare opinions held mistakenly before a fair trial and conviction showed them to be wrong, and opinions held where there has not been and cannot be any such trial, and where the evidence against the accused is solitary and weak?
The police arrested Ball, the CPS charged him, and Ball, who was able to ensure that he was professionally defended throughout, and was able to avail himself of the presumption of innocence, eventually pleaded guilty in court to serious charges and was sent to prison. I have not since heard it suggested by any of his former defenders that he is innocent of the charges he himself admitted. So those who may have found it difficult to believe that Peter Ball was a wicked abuser were shown to have been wrong in a fair and due process.
How on earth can Mr Welby equate this case with that of George Bell, who faced one uncorroborated accusation made years after his death, and was then condemned without any defence by what Lord Carlile found to be a sloppy and inadequate process in which key evidence undermining the accusation was not even seen by some of those involved, and in which key witnesses were neither found nor interviewed.
Mr Welby, in his very thin responses to the Carlile report, has never really addressed this. He has said that the report didn’t rule on Bell’s guilt or innocence, an almost childishly absurd response, since Mr Welby had told Lord Carlile in his terms of reference that he could not rule on this. In any case, Lord Carlile has repeatedly said since, in response to media questions, that no court would have convicted George Bell on the evidence which has been produced against him. It is clear that had Lord Carlile been asked to rule on George Bell’s guilt or innocence, he would have pronounced him ‘not guilty’. So what, precisely is the evidence on which the Archbishop of Canterbury, supposedly spiritual leader of millions, guardian of the foundations of truth and justice, maintains that there is still a ‘cloud’over George Bell’s name? Does he have second sight? Does he know something he is not telling us? If so (though I cannot see how this can be so) , why will he not say what it is? If not, why is he of all people exempted from the good rule, surely Biblical in origin, that if you cannot prove that a man is guilty, he is innocent and you shouldn’t go round saying that he is guilty just because in some way it suits you to say so. Some miserable rumour-monger in a pub might be entitled to drone that there is ‘no smoke without fire’, but not the inheritor of the See of Saint Augustine, I think. I doubt Mr Welby is familiar with the catechism in his own Church’s Book of Common Prayer, it having fallen rather out of use since that Church became happy and clappy. But I am sure the Lambeth library can find him a copy, and point him to the passage in which the candidate for confirmation is asked ‘What is thy duty towards thy neighbour’? I commend it to him.
He has rejected one of the report’s conclusions on how the case should have been handled. But I have never seen him acknowledge the Carlile report’s clear demonstration that the secret trial of George Bell was what it was, a badly-run, one-sided mess which failed to find key evidence or witnesses, and even failed to tell some of its members about key evidence which greatly undermined the accusation.
Yet Mr Welby continues to describe this marsupial outfit as if it was serious, saying ‘The Diocese of Chichester was given legal advice to make a settlement based on the civil standard of proof, the balance of probability. It was not alleged that Bishop Bell was found to have abused on the criminal standard of proof, beyond reasonable doubt. The two standards should not be confused.’
Indeed they should not, and it was the Chichester diocese which deliberately confused them when it claimed (wrongly) that Bishop Bell would have been arrested if alive, so unsurprisingly poisoning many trusting and naive minds against George Bell. But in fact, as was discussed at length when this subject was raised in a House of Lords debate attended by some of the country’s most eminent lawyers, the civil standard of proof requires that both sides are properly considered. In civil cases, plaintiff and defendant have lawyers and the chance to plead and the secret trial of George Bell did not even contain anyone arguing for his side. The idea that this farce met even the civil standard of proof is unsustainable, and I am amazed that anyone who has read the Carlile report could persist with this nonsense. It was one of the Church’s very early attempts to defend itself, back in 2016. It didn’t work then, when we still didn’t know how bad the secret trial had been. It certainly doesn’t work now.
We have all done wrong things. Some of them are irrevocable, and we can make no restitution to those whom we have hurt, in which case we shall just have to hope for mercy.
But where we *can* put right what we have done, things are different. I am haunted and much influenced by this passage of scripture. I commend it to the Archbishop. It begins with the 25th verse of the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to St Matthew. The words are those of Our Lord himself, and I take them to mean that when we have been found to be wrong, we do all we can to put that wrong right while we can, for if we do not we condemn ourselves to a long and needless grief which can only be expiated and assuaged at a far greater cost. He knows who the judge is in this reference, I think.
‘Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.’