I intend to ask, every day until it is published, why the report which the Church of England commissioned into its handling of an allegation against the late Bishop George Bell, has not been published. The report, which is highly critical of Church behaviour, was delivered to the Archbishop of Canterbury on Saturday 7th October 2017. Once again, I must explain why I am devoting so much of my life to clearing the name of a long-dead Bishop. Here goes.
The matter is strikingly similar in some ways to that of Lord Bramall, disgracefully accused in conditions of total publicity of appalling offences on the basis of scanty evidence. But Lord Bramall, being still alive, was eventually able to secure a proper retraction (thoihgh his wife did not live to see it). George Bell, a man (in my view) of comparable integrity only has us to stand up for him.
Those who wish to know why Bell, a rare courageous voice in this or any time, matters, might wish to read this full account of the case.
Much more, including a detailed and professional review of the case by experts, can be found here
Many weeks ago, the distinguished lawyer Lord Carlile of Berriew delivered a report to the Archbishop of Canterbury. This report has still not been published, and the Church can give no adequate explanation as to why it has not been.
I have good reason to believe that the report is pretty severe on the Church’s procedures. This is English understatement. I have little doubt that George Bell was publicly condemned on the basis of a procedure that would have shamed a banana republic.
Many people are affected by this, perhaps most shockingly the Guardian newspaper, which reported the allegations against Bishop Bell as if they were proven charges and has never made any attempt to put this right, though I have pressed them to do so through their own internal procedures (the Guardian does not belong to any outside regulatory body). The Times did so slightly less prominently. A reasonable summary of the coverage is here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35971308
My attempts to get the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to condemn their reporting also failed. I maintain that these reports would have been considered gravely inaccurate had Bishop Bell been alive. Why then were they not inaccurate just because he is dead? The BBC, surprisingly, did admit they had been wrong to accuse George Bell of ‘proven abuse’ and publicly regretted it, though they made no on-air correction.
The ‘Argus’ of Brighton and the Chichester Observer, while they have given me space in which to plead George Bell’s case, have continued to treat the matter as settled and George Bell as guilty. Horrible, Stalinoid things have followed – a school and a school school house have been renamed, portraits have been taken down (and in one casae eventually restored) and flowers removed form Bell’s memorial in Chichester Cathedral (though this has now ceased, and the monument, once defaced by a nasty little notice about ‘safeguarding’, is now rarely without flowers at its base). In some ways worst, George Bell House, given to the Church in his memory by a group of Anglican nuns who loved George Bell, and named in his honour by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has had Bell’s name stripped from it. Mentions of him have also been removed from a guidebook to Chichester cathedral.
The Carlile report was the result of many months of work. It is a review into the process which led to the public condemnation, as a child-molester, of the late Bishop of Chichester, George Bell.
George Bell is not to be confused with Bishop Peter Ball of Lewes, convicted of serious sexual offences a short time ago. I mention this because I have received more than one letter from persons who have made this confusion. I sometimes wonder if those who condemned George Bell realised that this confusion would be made.
Trying to clear George Bell’s name was difficult. The Church had recruited the Sussex Police to say that they would have arrested the Bishop had he been alive. Many ignorant people thought this was evidence of his guilt, though it is no such thing, and their foolish conclusions only show how poorly we are now taught the rules of our own liberty.
This was an absurdity. He had been dead since 1958 and the alleged offences supposedly dated from even earlier than that. The only evidence they had was a single uncorroborated accusation.
It is interesting that this is all it takes to get Sussex Police to arrest someone, when he has been dead for 57 years and there is no conceivable action they can take against him. For Sussex Police are among those many forces which claim they already have far too much to do.
But the Police have since explained that it was the Church which out them up to this. Did the Church realise that so many people would be persuaded by this ‘arrest’ of a corpse that George Bell was guilty as charged? I wonder.
The same Church was very hard on anyone who criticised its action. The Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd Martin Warner, complained : ‘The presence of strident voices in the public arena which have sought to undermine the survivor’s claims has added in this case to the suffering of the survivor and her family.’
Apart from being prejudicial, by using the term ‘survivor’ instead of the neutral expression ‘complainant’, this seeks to use the complainant as a sort of human shield. It would be ridiculous if no objections to an allegation could be voiced lest the upset the person making the allegations. Justice of all kinds would cease, and every defendant, criminal and civil, would be guilty as charged.
One of his episcopal colleagues (who has since apologised after I engaged in a long struggle to explain to him that this was his Christian duty) actually claimed in the House of Lords that supporters of George Bell had said ‘hurtful things’ about his accuser, a flat untruth. For reasons which escape me, nothing has been done to amend the record of the House of Lords itself. Where there’s a will, there’s a way and I intend to return to this once the Carlile Report is eventually published. It is one of many unfinished tasks, which will be easier once this whole matter is in the light of day. There is no good excuse for further delay in publication.