Resign, Bishop Warner! Resign Archbishop Welby!
On Thursday 24th January, after an epic of prevarification and sheer evasiveness, the Church of England published the findings of its enquiry into the case of Bishop George Bell who was Bishop of Chichester during the Second World War. The chairman of the Bell Group, made up of the family, friends and supporters of the bishop, has written to ask for my prayers and for my views on how the Group should proceed. Gladly, but first, for those many people who will be unfamiliar with the details of this scandal, I will set out the facts…
Bishop George Bell (1883-1958), Bishop of Chichester, has been judged and condemned without any case brought for his defence. An elderly woman came forward in 1995 and claimed that Bishop Bell had sexually abused her fifty years earlier. The authorities took no action. The woman complained again in 2013, by which time Bishop Bell had been dead for fifty-five years. The police concluded that there was sufficient evidence to justify their questioning Bishop Bell, had he been still alive. Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, discussed the matter with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and in 2015 the Church of England offered a formal apology to Bishop Bell’s accuser, paid her an undisclosed sum in compensation – later revealed to have been £31,000 – and allowed her to remain anonymous. The Church authorities ordered that memorials to Bishop Bell be removed and institutions – such as the Bishop Bell School, Eastbourne – should change their names. So this highly-regarded wartime bishop was effectually condemned to the status of a non-person.
Unsurprisingly, there was outrage. On 13th November 2015, Judge Alan Pardoe QC described the way the allegations against Bishop Bell had been handled as “slipshod and muddled.” Judge Pardoe’s criticisms were followed by further censure from a group of historians and theologians led by Jeremy Morris, Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
The Bishop of Chichester replied with insouciance and a volley of jargon to these criticisms: “The Church is seeking to move on from a culture in which manipulation of power meant that victims were too afraid to make allegations, or allegations were easily dismissed. We must provide safeguards of truth and justice for all, victim and accused alike.”
But there were no “safeguards of truth and justice” for Bishop Bell who was condemned without a hearing.
The outrage did not subside and a committee of senior church people, distinguished lawyers and members of both the Lords and the Commons calling itself The George Bell Group was formed. On 20th March 2016, this group published a review in which they challenged the Church’s evidence against Bishop Bell and attacked it for failing to find or interview a key witness or examine Bell’s own extensive personal archive.
On 30th June 2016, the case formed a large part of a debate in the House of Lords on historical child sex abuse.
On 28th June 2016, the Church of England announced that it would hold an independent review of the procedure used. On 22nd November 2016 it announced that Lord Carlile QC would chair this review
Meanwhile, the George Bell Group declared: “In view of the evidence that we have gathered and examined, we have concluded that the allegation made against Bishop Bell cannot be upheld in terms of actual evidence or historical probability.”
Lord Carlile’s report was eventually handed to the Church authorities and they kicked it into the long grass.
So much for Bishop Martin Warner’s vaunted “…safeguards of truth and justice for all, victim and accused alike.” All along, the only interests being safeguarded here were those of the Bishop of Chichester and the Archbishop of Canterbury. We know very well why these authorities leapt so precipitately to condemn Bishop Bell out of hand: it was because they had previously had to admit to the existence of so many perpetrators of sexual abuse among the senior clergy – especially in the Diocese of Chichester. Warner and Welby, to salvage what remained of their reputations, wanted desperately to appear to be doing something
Thus the name of the safely-dead Bishop George Bell was tarnished because the Church’s highest authorities sought to cover their own backs.
Let us be in no doubt as to the seriousness of the Church’s misconduct so eloquently criticised in Lord Carlile’s report. He said that Bell had been “hung out to dry,” he added that the Church’s procedures were “deficient, inappropriate and impermissible”; “obvious lines of enquiry were not followed” and there was “a rush to judgement.”
In the light of this scandalously incompetent behaviour, the least that might have been expected from the Archbishop of Canterbury was a profuse apology to Bishop Bell’s descendants, family, friends and numerous supporters for the distress his decisions have caused them. Was there such and apology? There was not. Instead Justin Welby persisted in his mood of arrogant vindictiveness, saying, “A significant cloud is left over George Bell’s name. 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…”
This is outrageous. True, Bishop Bell was “accused of great wickedness” – but he was not found guilty of any wrongdoing. And there is no “significant cloud” over his name. There is, however, certainly a very dark cloud over Welby’s name after his lamentable performance in this matter.
Lord Carlile didn’t mince his words: “The Church operated a kangaroo court.” He added that the church authorities have “besmirched.” Bishop Bell’s name. Sussex police have repeated their judgement that there is “no evidence” against him.
Welby has described the church’s enquiry as “Very, very painful.” For him yes, as indeed it ought to have been owing to his disgraceful and dishonourable conduct of this issue from the start. So to answer the question put to me this morning by the Bell Group, “How should we proceed?” There is only one answer and it is clear: the Bell Group should call for Warner and Welby to resign – as indeed they ought to have done once Lord Carlile’s report had been published.
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Revd Peter Mullen
“Men dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good” – Choruses from the Rock (1934) by T.S. Eliot
All the clergy are obliged to attend safeguarding courses which are designed to help us spot the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of children or adults. Dutiful as ever, I went along to Hailsham Parish Church to do my bit. But of course it was nothing like a parish church. Fifty years ago there would have been pews, copies of The Book of Common Prayer and other unmistakeable signs of traditional country town Anglicanism. Not these days. The pews had been wrenched out, there were no Prayer Books, only copies of some awful modern version of Holy Writ – a sort of Bad News Bible. Colour posters everywhere. Slogans. Pictures of the parish clergy – only you couldn’t tell they were clergy. They wore jeans, t-shirts, polo necks and other emblems of today’s ecclesiastical with-it-ness. Banana-split grins and pasty faces, as if they had spent too long in the crypt coffee bar.
About thirty of us sat in small groups at tables set out where the pews once were. There was a screen and there was about to be a presentation by our safeguarding tutor, a retired schoolmistress of forbidding countenance and stentorian insistence. Think Fairy Hardcastle in C.S Lewis’ That Hideous Strength. When she spoke, she used words – but not as we speak in the street: “Vulnerable…mechanisms…sharing” and others from the whole glossary of politically correct psychobabble. Our tutor was not without religion and she began with a prayer in which she helpfully informed the Almighty that we were meeting to discuss “very serious matters.” When she had finished putting God in the picture, she moved on to tell us things we perhaps had not noticed hitherto: “Children talk to one another.” We might usefully listen to them in order to pick up any suggestions from the subject of their talk which betrayed evidence of abuse.
Cut to the screen and a video of children talking to – and shouting and screaming at – one another. It reminded me of accidental glimpses I occasionally used to catch of such television shows as EastEnders or Grange Hill. The children used phrases such as “You’re doin’ mi ‘ead in!” and, whispered, “This is going to be our secret.” By these signs we might suspect that the children were using the argot they had picked up from abusive adults. Ken Loach would have rejoiced to observe that video’s raw actualite.
When incidents of abuse are suspected and reported, the Social Services might get involved. Our tutor surprised some of us by saying, “Social Services don’t barge in and remove children from the family home.” What then was the substance of the frequent newspaper reports we read of their doing exactly that? I wondered whether, in any particular case, the effects of calling in the Social Services might make a bad situation worse. But the tutor told us that such a decision was not our responsibility. All that was required of us was to report the matter to our safeguarding officer, “Then you’ve done your job.” This is the substance of the quotation from T. S. Eliot with which I began: in the safeguarding “mechanism,” ethics is replaced by process and moral problems are effectually demoralised as the system takes over and I am not deemed capable of formimg my own judgements as to the best way to proceed. Just report it to the safeguarding officer. Job done. The excuse, “I was only obeying orders” comes to mind.
And such a system it is! There is a full-time safeguarding supremo and he supervises many assistants throughout the diocese. And most other institutions and professions – teachers, youth workers, nurses, the Social Services themselves – deploy a similar regime. Even my taxi driver said he was obliged to attend a safeguarding course and asked, particularly regarding his women passengers, to “keep my eyes open for signs of abuse.” The image is of a ubiquitous, paranoid system in which everyone is spying on everyone else and watching his own back at the same time. Indeed, our tutor told us: “Safeguarding includes safeguarding yourself.” As with all bureaucratic systems – especially in what are now called “the caring professions” – there is that uneasy combination of callousness and sentimentality.
Naturally, we were given infantilised exercises: small bits of card with “typical signs of abuse” itemised and we were invited to assess whether a woman’s bruises were caused accidentally or by violence; or a child’s sleeplessness might suggest sexual abuse. “Watch out for changes in eating habits. What would you conclude from observing that a young person was constantly hungry and even scavenging waste bins for food?”
I’m afraid I couldn’t resist: “I would conclude Jeremy Corbyn had become prime minister.”
But in the safeguarding workshop’s pervading atmosphere of political-correctness, jokes are no laughing matter.
Some suspected/reported incidents of abuse give rise to grave concerns. For example, we were told of a teacher who had sent what was alleged to be an ambiguous email message to a pupil. Did it contain sexual references? The recipient didn’t think so, but others did and they called the police. No charges were brought against the teacher but, because an official complaint had been made, he was put on the register of sex offenders. This is scandalously unjust: the teacher was neither convicted nor even charged with any offence, and yet he was punished as if he had been proven guilty.
There are many such abuses of natural justice in the paranoid, surveillance-driven society which safeguarding has created. The worst of these arise from the safeguarding dogma that the “victim” is always to be believed. But the so called “victim” is not a victim until a perpetrator has been identified and the fact proven. Currently in the diocese of Chichester there is being played out one case involving such a spectacular injustice that it is scarcely believable in a free and open society. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester during the Second World War, was recently accused of committing a sexual offence against a woman. This would be particularly difficult to prove since Bishop Bell died in 1958. That presents no problem for the Church of England authorities. In keeping with safeguarding’s article of faith that the “victim” must always be believed, they have removed all memorials to Bishop Bell so that in effect he has become what in the Soviet regime was called a non-person.
There has been no trial. The word of his accuser has been accepted as the truth concerning an incident which, it is alleged, took place at least fifty-nine years ago! She has been allowed to retain her anonymity. And the Church of England has paid her an undisclosed amount of money in compensation.
Palpable injustices such as that visited upon the memory of George Bell are the signature behaviour of totalitarian states.
Revd Peter Mullen
What can we hope for?
I have been inveigled – I don’t know what else to say – into the Bishop George Bell Society [The Bell Society- Ed]. I have already written vigorously about the scandalous behaviour by the church hierarchy which has so tarnished the reputation of this noble and innocent man. So when the chairman [Not quite – Ed] of the Bell Society invited me to speak at their October meeting in Westminster, I was delighted to accept.
Subsequent communications with the chairman of the Society [Richard W. Symonds – Ed] have been far from encouraging. (Imagine the atmosphere of a Sunday School outing on a very damp day) I suggested that a key aim should be to get rid of the liars and traducers of George Bell – that is Welby of Canterbury and Warner of Chichester. These “men” are clearly guilty and so should be exposed as such and by that means compelled to resign.
I further suggested to the chairman that for this purpose rottweilers and terriers were needed in the form of big name public figures and high powered journalists to take up the cudgels.
Whereupon the gentle chairman backed off and said he would leave the rottweilers and terriers to get on with the job. (But there aren’t any). Moreover he was convinced that Welby and Warner will have been despatched by October
By whom, then?
He wants all the speakers at his October conference to be part of a consensual team to “build bridges” And we are all to agree in advance as to what we shall say [Not quite – Ed]
Those who acknowledge the great injustice that has been done to George Bell have no need to build bridges with anyone. And of course it is unthinkable that we should build bridges with Welby and Warner – who have revealed themselves as two of the most treacherous episcopal specimens of recent times . (And the competition is not negligible)
This dear chairman is no doubt a delightful man and mush-loved by old ladies of both sexes. He is, I suspect, sensationally ineffectual. I don’t say he wouldn’t say boo to a goose, but he would make sure before he did say boo that there was a psychiatrist on hand to treat the goose for post-traumatic stress disorder
What George Bell needs is people who will fight his corner for him – and bugger “building bridges”
I suspect I am wasting my time with this lot: nice as they sound, with their meeting in Church House – what you might call the “away” ground
PS Chap goes into a pub and asks for a Welby
“A Welby, Sir?”