This Christmas I would like you to think of the plight of a 94-year-old woman, who has been atrociously mistreated by the Archbishop of Canterbury
Her name is Mrs Barbara Whitley.
More than three years ago, the Church of England publicly accused her beloved long-dead uncle of the filthy crime of child sex abuse.
The charge was based on the word of a single accuser, more than half a century after the supposed offence. The Church had presumed his guilt and made no serious effort to discover the truth. Key living witnesses were neither sought, found nor interviewed. A senior bishop admitted soon afterwards that they were actually not convinced the claim was true. Yet by some mysterious process, a number of newspapers and BBC stations, all on the same day, felt safe in confidently pronouncing that Barbara’s uncle had been a disgusting paedophile. No ifs or buts.
Who told them?
A later inquiry would show that this miserable episode was based on nothing more than a chaotic, sloppy kangaroo court. One of this country’s most distinguished lawyers, Lord Carlile, tore the case against Barbara’s uncle to shreds. He said there would have been no chance of a conviction on the evidence available, and made mincemeat of the shambolic committee that had published the original allegation.
After delaying the release of this inquiry for weeks, Justin Welby’s church eventually published it.
But did it admit its mistake and restore the reputation of Barbara Whitley’s wrongly defamed uncle?
Nope. Mr Welby, in defiance of all the rules of British justice, sulkily insisted that a ‘significant cloud’ still hung over the name of Barbara’s uncle. Thus, just as she might have been able to rejoice that her relative’s name had at last been cleared, the Head of the Established Church made it his personal business to prevent this.
And then, a few weeks later, another supposed allegation against her uncle was said to have been made. Why then? What was it? Who had made it? Nobody would say, but it served to stifle potential criticism of Mr Welby at the General Synod of the Church of England, which was about to begin. Details of the second allegation remain a secret. After nearly a year, Mr Welby’s church (which has a bad record of sitting on reports that it doesn’t like) still hasn’t come up with its conclusions. Yet Sussex Police, given the same information, dropped their investigations into the matter after a few short weeks.
It all looks a bit as if someone is trying to save someone’s face. But the cruelty to Barbara Whitley, who was 91 when this horrible saga began, is appalling. Who cares about some prelate’s pride (a sin in any case) when Mrs Whitley could be spared any more pain?
Because the cruelty to Mrs Whitley seems to me to be so shocking in a supposedly Christian organisation, I have deliberately left till last that the object of these accusations is the late Bishop of Chichester, George Bell.
Bell was, as people who knew him have told me, a kind, scrupulously honest, courageous man. He was, most notably, a beloved friend of the German Christians who fought against Hitler and a brave critic of the cruelty of war. I sometimes wonder if modern bishops and archbishops are afraid of being compared with him. They have reason to be. In the meantime, Mr Welby’s church should end Mrs Whitley’s agony.
Does anyone really doubt that, if the archbishop wanted to, he could end the whole business today?
~ Peter Hitchens