A document which I hope will always be referred to as the Blackburn Letter appeared yesterday June 17th 2019. It is written by the senior staff of the Blackburn Diocese and is addressed to their licensed staff, clergy and Readers, and safeguarding officers.
In essence, it is commending study of the recent IICSA report on the Diocese of Chichester and the Peter Ball case.
Those of us who have been cheering on the case of safeguarding for some time cannot but feel that this is progress. The Letter may claim historic importance because it shows that in one diocese of the Church of England a group of senior church people really seem to understand all the dimensions of safeguarding in the Church. They understand it in a way that goes far beyond the box-ticking reputational management process which is what safeguarding comes to be in many places.
Why am I personally moved by this letter? For a start, the Blackburn senior staff want those who study the IICSA report to notice before anything else the suffering that has been caused by sexual abuse to real victims. Many people, including myself, have always pleaded that safeguarding should start at this end – the needs of survivors. Sexual abuse, however many years ago it took place is a ‘human catastrophe’ for those caught up in it as victims as well as causing ‘lifelong impact’. How right that the Blackburn Letter begins with words from Psalm 51. ‘Have mercy on us O God, for we have sinned’. The letter makes no apology for putting the human suffering endured by survivors right at the beginning.
The traditional preoccupation of the Church, reputation management, only gets a mention in para 5. It is mentioned, but only as a way of explaining that it has been a factor in not dealing well with allegations from the past. When protecting the good name of the institution has taken precedence, the suffering of survivors has been made far worse.
Moving on from what appear to be genuine expressions of sorrow and contrition on behalf of the whole Church, the letter begins to explore what can be done in the future. The congregations are to be places where ‘children and vulnerable adults can be entirely safe’ but also where ‘the voices of those who have difficult things to say or disclosures to make are heard and acted on.’ The second part of this wish is far harder to deliver. Many survivors report that the reason the Church has found it so hard to deal with their needs is because the recounting of their past experience of suffering causes so much discomfort in the hearer.
None of us find it easy to listen to stories of abuse, particularly when the abuser was a trusted figure, like a priest or a bishop. Taking on board the idea that a member of the home team is an abuser is deeply unsettling. It is far easier to shut down the discordant thought and that is what many people will do in practice.
A further insight in the letter, which is music to my ears, is the recognition that clericalism, deference and abuse of power lie behind the ‘cover-up’ and the silencing of the ‘voices of the vulnerable’. Clergy and other leaders have power within the relationships they possess and there needs to be ‘deeper awareness’ of that power. This theme of ministerial power and its potential for harm is the topic that I have chosen to reflect on in the forthcoming volume of essays Letters to a Broken Church. There is so much more to be said on this topic.
I want to make two further observations about the letter. One is that the letter appears to have been written at a visceral level. In short, the emotions of sorrow and repentance are allowed to rise to the surface and be dominant themes in what is communicated. Somehow the letter, assisted by a quotation from Andrew Graystone’s essay of a week ago, manages to avoid completely the somewhat petulant tone of so many expressions of ‘regret’ and ‘apology’ that we associate with official statements.
Are we correct in seeing in this letter the beginning of something new, a combination of deep sorrow and genuine feeling for the needs of survivors and those wronged by the Church?
Such sentiments, if they are followed through, will begin to meet the needs of survivors. It may be the beginning of the ‘change of culture’ that has been looked for by so many. It is also the first sign that some senior clergy individually and corporately are beginning to ‘get it’.
My final observation is a somewhat irreverent one but it needs to be made. Is it a coincidence that this remarkable statement of unanimity and contrition about safeguarding emerges from a diocese that is far away from London? The Diocese of Blackburn may be articulating a somewhat prophetic position precisely because it feels itself geographically and in other ways remote from the centres of Anglican influence represented by Church House and Lambeth Palace respectively. The prospect of an entire diocese studying the articulate comments and criticisms of the Independent Inquiry must be causing considerable discomfort among those who try hard to control the narrative and set the agenda for the Church of England. The forthcoming debates at York General Synod may or may not get to the heart of the issue as the Blackburn Letter seems to have done. Whatever is said at York, the effect of the process of study in the Blackburn diocese will have implications which will reverberate long into the future. It will be increasingly hard to claim that no one understands the issues. The consequences of this serious reflective study on safeguarding and the needs of survivors will be hard to limit only to one circumscribed geographical area represented by the Diocese of Blackburn.
Right at the heart of this blog’s concern and many other places is the desire that the suffering of abuse survivors should be understood, responded to and healed. Up till now the Church has often insisted of responding through damage limitation and avoidance. The Blackburn response is suggesting that these methods are no longer viable. Perhaps the Blackburn Letter is the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Church of England. One day it may be said that that on the 17th June 2019 the Church of England, represented by the Diocese of Blackburn, began to move from denial and avoidance of the issue of abuse victims to a stance resembling healing, humility and new beginnings.
IICSA report on Ball’s translation; clearing Bishop Bell…
From Mr Richard W. Symonds
Sir, — Your leader comment (“Power of abuse”, 17 May) states: “. . . It is easy, then, to see why Dr Warner [the Bishop of Chichester] has been so reluctant to declare Bishop Bell innocent of the charges of abuse brought against him by ‘Carol’, despite encouragement to do so from those who have investigated the case thoroughly.”
As someone who has assisted “those who have investigated the case thoroughly”, I do not find the Bishop’s reluctance to declare Bishop Bell innocent “easy . . . to see”.
In fact, I find Dr Warner’s reluctance incomprehensible.
RICHARD W. SYMONDS
The Bell Society
2 Lychgate Cottages
Ifield Street, Ifield Village
West Sussex RH11 0NN
From the Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan
Sir, — Your account (News, 17 May) of the Report of the Independent Investigation into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA), while picking upon the part played by Archbishop George Carey, omits any mention of another key figure, who must bear much responsibility for the whole miserable event.
The hinge on which the case turns is the appointment of Peter Ball to be Bishop of Gloucester. The earlier Gibb report merely reported that Ball had been no 2 on the list sent to John Major, though it did report that the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary, Robin Catford, had earlier tried Peter Ball’s name on the diocesan representatives of Norwich when they were seeking to appoint a diocesan bishop there in 1985. The Norwich representatives then indicated that they did not want a bishop who seemed so greatly to enjoy the company of young men.
The IICSA report mentions this in para. 61. It does not mention here that the previous year Catford had made the same approach to the Portsmouth representatives when their diocese was vacant, and they (I have on good authority from one of the four) replied that they lived too near to Sussex with too much knowledge of Chichester diocese to contemplate nominating Ball.
To anyone who asked the question, which the Gibb report omitted, how Ball was appointed to Gloucester, the IISCA gives a part-reply. It does highlight the critical role played by Catford in persuading John Major to use his discretion and appoint the second name on the list, with a very loaded and possibly even devious exercise of his advisory role. Catford appears in a very bad light in paras. 65-66 of the IISCA report. But the report does not consider the prior question how Ball ever became considered for appointment by the Crown Appointments Commission. The CAC must surely have received clean unqualified references, tabled by the two appointments secretaries (one the Archbishop’s, the other the Prime Minister’s) and including, presumably, a detailed reference from Eric Kemp, Ball’s diocesan bishop in Chichester.
The report does show that Kemp was well aware of activities (or at least rumours) that would have seriously qualified any frank report; so we are left to wonder what kind of references the two secretaries laid before the CAC. Had Kemp written nothing, or had anything damaging been filleted out of anything that he had written? Ball was also an unlikely candidate on the quite different grounds that he opposed the ordination of women, which Gloucester diocese strongly supported (a point that it does not appear that Catford made in his memorandum to John Major).
So it becomes reasonable to assume that, as previously with Portsmouth and Norwich, Catford was pressing a strong case for Ball’s appointing — and securing Ball’s position as second on the list with the CAC was enough to enable him then to recommend to the Prime Minister that Ball be appointed. But IISCA does not report what references and what other support Ball had at the CAC; and the natural conclusion must remain that George Carey, along with the CAC, was being taken for a ride on behalf of Catford’s favoured candidate.
If this is so, three immediate reflections come to mind. First is that it is hardly surprising that George Carey, with the PM’s appointments secretary’s glowing character reference before him, was fully ready to believe Ball’s protestations of innocence. Second, if a proper handling of the stories around in Chichester diocese had been put before the CAC, Peter Ball would never have been even second in the candidates for appointment to Gloucester, and, while the matter would no doubt have reached the Archbishop of Canterbury, it is Bishop Kemp who would have had to deal with the first round of complaints; and, third, the key person responsible for getting Ball into this position was the civil servant who was adviser to the PM, in relation to which the State is as liable as the Church for the unwanted outcome.
The PM retained the final discretion in the appointment of bishops; he, on the wholly misleading advice of the civil servant who was supposed to have first-rate and dispassionate knowledge of the clergy, exercised his discretion on behalf of a deeply flawed candidate; and considerable blame should therefore lie with Downing Street.
None of this touches directly on the part played by either the police or George Carey or the Prince of Wales, but it helps to explain why Ball was so readily believed.
21 The Drive
Leeds LS17 7QB
15 May 2019
Please Sign This Petition for Truth and Justice
I hesitate to ask readers one again to support a petition, but my good friend Peter Billingham, a long-standing and dedicated fighter in the cause of truth, and justice for the late George Bell, needs your support in a good enterprise.
There is now no serious question that the late Bishop Bell has emerged with his reputation unstained after allegations made against him. Regular readers will know of the case, but for new readers, or those wishing to refresh their memories, the best summary of the long saga may be read here http://www.georgebellgroup.org/statement-may-2019/
The distinguished QC Lord Carlile of Berriew reviewed the case in a report which showed that the investigation of the allegations against the late Bishop bell was a one-sided, sloppy kangaroo court. But the Archbishop of Canterbury, who commissioned that report, debarred him from stating a conclusion about George Bell’s guilt or innocence. Lord Carlile made it clear, when questioned at the time of publication, that he thought the case against George bell was extraordinarily weak. He has since said clearly that he believes that Bishop Bell *was* innocent of the charges,
Lord Carlile declared on 1 February 2019, ‘The Church should now accept that my recommendations should be accepted in full, and that after due process, however delayed, George Bell should be declared by the Church to be innocent of the allegations made against him.’
But while the Church has plainly retreated from its earlier attitude, and the media which joined hastily in the Church’s hasty, unfair condemnation are now licking their wounds, relieved that the dead have no redress in such situations, there is still a failure in some quarters to admit error. In a Stalinist frenzy after the first accusations were made, George Bell’s name was hurriedly and shamefully stripped from a number of buildings and institutions, by people who failed to understand the most basic principles of English justice.
The most important of these was the handsome and tranquil guest house in Chichester Cathedral precincts, called George Bell House. This building was originally the gift of an order of Anglican nuns who had loved George Bell when he was alive and wanted to honour him after his death. Yet despite the vindication of George Bell by the Carlile review, his name has still not been restored to it. This is small-minded and petty, and putting it right would go a long way towards the penitence the Chichester authorities, and the Church of England as a whole, ought to show.
So, in the names of Truth and Justice, I ask you please to take a moment to add your names to this petition:
A report by Timothy Briden, relating to Bishop George Bell
A report by Timothy Briden, a senior ecclesiastical lawyer, relating to fresh information received about the late Bishop George Bell, has been published today. Mr Briden was appointed by the Bishop of Chichester to make an independent assessment of the evidence.
The Cathedral Chapter welcomes Timothy Briden’s report and the accompanying statements by the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team, the Bishop of Chichester and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The full report and statements can be found here: https://www.churchofengland.org/more/safeguarding/safeguarding-news-statements/national-safeguarding-team-statement-bishop-bell
The Bishop of Chichester’s statement refers to the difficulty of this complex case:
‘The legitimate quest for certainty has been defeated by the nature of the case and the passage of time. Bishop Bell cannot be proven guilty, nor can it be safely claimed that the original complainant has been discredited. There is an uncertainty which cannot be resolved. We ask those who hold opposing views on this matter to recognize the strength of each other’s commitment to justice and compassion.’
The Archbishop of Canterbury also notes:
‘The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has already questioned the Church of England over its response to the Bishop Bell case and the review by Lord Carlile. We expect that their report on our hearings will address further the complex issues that have been raised and will result in a more informed, confident, just and sensitive handling of allegations of abuse by the church in the future. We have apologised, and will continue to do so, for our poor response to those brave enough to come forward, while acknowledging that this will not take away the effects of the abuse.
This very difficult issue therefore leaves the church with an impossible dilemma which I hope people with different perspectives on it will try to understand.’
The Bell Society Resolution states: “Having now established the allegations of sexual abuse against Bishop George Bell were unfounded, it is resolved 4 Canon Lane in the Cathedral city be once again known as George Bell House”
A Petition to accompany this Resolution will be available to sign online, or in person on Thursday afternoon – June 6th, 2pm to 5pm – in the Old Court Room at Chichester City Council in North Street.
Richard W. Symonds
‘The diocese said…”We are deeply ashamed…”‘
George Bell Group issues new statement
Since October 2015 when the Archbishops’ Council announced that they had paid compensation to the woman given the pseudonym ‘Carol’, who alleged that she had been abused by Bishop George Bell, his defenders have criticised the Church authorities for never once affording the Bishop the presumption of innocence. Now, after the inquiries of Lord Carlile and Timothy Briden, it can be seen that the allegations against Bishop Bell were unfounded in fact.
THE CARLILE REVIEW
The Carlile report, whose conclusions (save as to publicity) the Church accepted, criticised the investigation of Carol’s allegations as a rush to judgment predicated on Bell’s guilt. It concluded that the decision to settle with Carol was indefensibly wrong and that the process completely ignored the Bishop’s reputation and the interests of his surviving family, including his very elderly niece.
The original statement by the Archbishops’ Council in October 2015 claimed that none of the expert independent reports had found reason to doubt Carol’s veracity. But Lord Carlile discovered that the only expert consulted by the Church thought it very likely that Carol’s experience of abuse in her first marriage had affected her recall, and that the possibility of false memories was a real one.
Regrettably Archbishop Welby added his authority to the destruction of Bell’s reputation: on Good Friday 2016, before the Carlile report was completed, he told BBC Radio that the investigation of Carol’s claim had been ‘very thorough’ and the finding of abuse correct on the balance of probabilities. We now know how far from the truth that was.
The Archbishop told Lord Carlile during his inquiry that if there had not been a proper investigation of Carol’s story, the Church would have to apologise. But sadly, when the Carlile report was published in December 2017, he chose not to do so. To the disappointment of Bell’s defenders, he appeared to reject the presumption of innocence; instead he commented that there was still ‘a significant cloud’ left over Bishop Bell’s name without giving any explanation of why he continued to hold that view in the face of Lord Carlile’s conclusions.
THE ‘FRESH INFORMATION’ AND THE BRIDEN PROCESS
The publicity given to the Carlile report appears to have triggered a copy-cat claim by the woman given the name Alison. The Core Safeguarding Group which had been responsible for the shambolic investigation of Carol’s claim now set about trying to substantiate that by Alison. They may well have hoped that the similar facts alleged by Alison would corroborate the discredited Carol. But within weeks the police, to whom the Core Group had reported the matter, closed their enquiries. Next an investigation by a senior retired police officer commissioned by the Church quickly showed that Alison’s evidence was unreliable and incapable of supporting any adverse finding against the Bishop.
Mr Briden reported that her account not only had internal inconsistencies but was also contaminated by her having read Carol’s story, a contamination revealed by her repeating verbatim some of Carol’s words which had been reported in the press. He ended his report by saying that all the allegations against George Bell remitted to him were unfounded.
Many will have hoped that on reading Mr Briden’s report Archbishop Welby would have publicly acknowledged that the cloud of which he had previously spoken had been dissipated. He did not do so.
THE DUTY OF THE CHURCH NOW
The history of the treatment by the Church of England of the reputation of George Bell has become a scandal. It is now the plain duty of the Church of England, nationally and in the Diocese of Chichester, to make amends by working to restore Bishop Bell’s reputation, not least in institutions which were once proud to adopt his name.
We welcome the decision of Canterbury Cathedral to revive a commission to create a statue of Bell and note the expression of ‘delight’ with which the Archbishop of Canterbury has responded. We acknowledge with gratitude the firmness with which the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church, Oxford have maintained and cherished the chapel there dedicated to Bell’s memory throughout the controversy. We note that the meeting room dedicated to Bishop Bell remains, as before, at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.
It is only in Chichester itself, the place in which Bishop Bell lived and worked for almost thirty years and where his ashes are interred in the cathedral, that any public adoption of his name is now suppressed.
We find the public stance of the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, incomprehensible and indefensible. The Bishop’s ‘Response’ to the Briden Report, published on 24 January 2019 and now promoted on the websites of the diocese and cathedral, only went as far as to acknowledge that ‘Bishop Bell cannot be proven guilty’. He added that it could not be ‘safely claimed that the original complainant [i.e. Carol] had been discredited’. This is a most regrettable insinuation that there was, or likely was, substance to Carol’s allegation and hence that Bell was to be suspected of abuse.
The Bishop emphasised the defamatory innuendo by asking ‘those who hold opposing views on this matter to recognise the strength of each other’s commitment to justice and compassion.’ There is, regrettably, no evidence in this response of the Bishop’s commitment to justice or of any compassion towards those who are wrongly accused. His words have been repeated verbatim by the Bishop at Lambeth in response to a Question at the recent session of the General Synod of the church. Indeed, the Bishop even invoked the authority of the House of Bishops in support of this view. So far as we are aware the House has never even discussed the matter.
Such words simply preserve the impression that there was, and remains, a case against Bell. A not dissimilar state of mind was revealed by the Chichester Diocesan Safeguarding Officer when he told the Child Abuse Inquiry in March 2018 that ‘all the indications we have would suggest that the simplest explanation for why someone comes forward to report abuse – because they were abused – is likely to be the correct one’.
As the High Court Judge Sir Richard Henriques has pointed out in his report to the Metropolitan Police on allegations against prominent individuals, such an assumption results in an investigation which does not challenge the complainant, tends to disbelieve the suspect and shifts onto the suspect the burden of proof, ignoring any presumption of innocence. It becomes a premise for a miscarriage of justice such as can now be seen to have been inflicted on the reputation of George Bell.
It should be sufficient to observe that like Professor Anthony Maden, Lord Carlile did interview this first complainant. We note Lord Carlile’s statement of 1 February 2019, made to the local campaigner Mr Richard Symonds: ‘The Church should now accept that my recommendations should be accepted in full, and that after due process, however delayed, George Bell should be declared by the Church to be innocent of the allegations made against him.’
We are more than conscious that this saga represents a wider pattern in the Church and across society where many other such miscarriages of justice have become notorious. Now it is surely essential that if all the many safeguarding bodies, national and diocesan, are to be retained by the Church of England their work must be placed under real legal discipline and in the hands of officers who observe fully the expectations and rule of law and act without fear or prejudice.
There must never again be any repetition of such a discreditable, indeed disgraceful, performance.