The coincidence of a second sexual assault allegation against Bishop George Bell coming to light a month after the initial one was discredited and a week before the synod of the Church of England was due to hear a motion on the issue was remarkable. Quite why the church had to issue a press release is unclear. Lord Carlile of Berriew, who investigated the first allegation, has been told nothing about the second.
When did the church first hear of this allegation against the former Bishop of Chichester, who died 60 years ago, and why release it in a manner that suggests an attempt to divert attention from criticism of the church’s initial investigation?
The work of the Carlile report and the George Bell Group has shown that the original investigation by the church was inadequate. There was no attempt to talk to surviving witnesses, or to look at his papers, nor was there any evidence of a pattern of offending behaviour.
The obvious thing for the Archbishop of Canterbury to do would have been to accept this as, at the least, a sign that it was unsafe to condemn Bishop Bell. That would not mean that the complainant, “Carol”, was wrong, but would have aligned with the conclusion that there was no evidence of guilt.
Instead the archbishop managed to make two mutually exclusive claims: first that a cloud hung over Bell’s reputation, but that he remained an “Anglican hero”. These two things cannot both be true. Bell’s reputation as an Anglican hero rests on his record of integrity in opposing the persecution of Jews in the 1930s and the bombing of Germany in 1944, and on his work as a great ecumenist. If he was abusing a child or children during this time, his integrity disintegrates. The archbishop tells us his own integrity is at stake here, although it is unclear how.
The Archbishop Cranmer blogger has suggested that this second allegation may come from a source who failed to contact Lord Carlile. The church could confirm or deny that but prefers to say nothing.
The archbishop clearly wishes to escape the charge that, in the case of Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Gloucester, it failed to investigate child abuse allegations, but it cannot do that by mounting an inadequate allegation against a long-dead bishop. If it thought that it could signal virtue by throwing Bell under the bus, it failed.
Doubling down here does not raise questions about the archbishop’s integrity, but rather about the quality of the advice he receives and his own judgment.
Professor John Charmley is pro vice-chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham