The Church of England has been accused of launching a ‘shameful and foolish’ new attack on one of its most revered bishops, by making public an uncorroborated child sex abuse allegation almost 70 years old.
The Church announced on Wednesday it had referred to the police a second claim of sexual assault made against Bishop George Bell, who died in 1958.
It made the allegation public amid growing pressure on Archbishop Justin Welby to apologise for the Church’s handling of a previous claim against Bishop Bell, which shredded his reputation.
The General Synod is to discuss the Church’s treatment of Bishop Bell with some suggestion that Archbishop Welby should have resigned over his refusal to say sorry.
In a statement, the Church said: “The Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team has received fresh information concerning Bishop George Bell. Sussex Police have been informed and we will work collaboratively with them.”
Bishop Peter Hancock, the Church of England’s lead Safeguarding bishop, said: “Due to the confidential nature of this new information I regret I cannot disclose any further detail until the investigations have been concluded.
The Church refused to give further details such as the date of any alleged wrongdoing nor even whether the complainant is a man or a woman or even still alive. That raises the prospect Bishop Bell is being investigated 60 years after his death on claims made by someone from beyond the grave.
An independent report by Lord Carlile QC into the previous claim – made by a woman known only as Carol – had found the Church had “severely and unnecessarily damaged” Bishop Bell’s reputation. A psychiatric report suggested her claim could have been the result of false memory.
Lord Carlile said he was astonished that the Church had gone public with the new claim against Bishop Bell. Among his recommendations was that people accused of abuse should remain anonymous until the allegations are proven.
Lord Carlile said last night: “I am not privy to the information that is referred to in the church’s press release. But I think it was unwise, unnecessary and foolish to issue a press release in relation to something that remains to be investigated and which was not part of the material placed before me over the period of more than a year in which I carried out my review.
“During that period the review was well known and it was open to anybody to place information before me.”
Professor Andrew Chandler, his biographer and spokesman for the George Bell Group, said: “This is shameful. The issuing of this press release shows the only way the Church can justify itself is at George Bell’s expense.”
A source close to the case said it was “outrageous” that the Church had made the announcement on the eve of a debate held at Church House which is expected to lead to calls for Justin Welby to quit over his handling of the matter. General Synod will also hear calls for Archbishop Welby to apologise when it meets next week.
The new complaint is understood to be at least 70 years old and is uncorroborated.
The source added: “This is outrageous behaviour on the part of the Church.”
The Telegraph understands the Church has known about the case for at least a fortnight before making it public 24 hours before the Church House debate.
One source suggested the Church might be keen to pay damages to the complainant because it will help to justify its contentious decision to pay damages to “Carol” in 2015.
Bishop Bell, who was Bishop of Chichester, was one of the Church’s outstanding clerics of the 20th century, recognised for helping to save the lives of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
Carol had first gone to the Church with her complaint in 1995 and made her allegations a second time direct to Archbishop Welby in 2013. The psychiatric report suggested it was highly unusual for her to have waited almost 50 years before making her initial complaint. The fresh allegation will raise similar concerns.