When the Church of England issued a statement in October 2015 expressing “deep sorrow” over the sexual abuse of a child by one of its most revered 20th-century figures, it caused shockwaves.
Many of those who admired and respected George Bell, who was bishop of Chichester from 1929 until his death in 1958, simply could not believe that a man described as “a rare example of self-sacrificing human goodness” had committed such a deed. At the very least, they said, the church had “condemned as a paedophile” someone who could not refute the claims against him.
In the two years that followed the C of E’s apology, Bell’s supporters fought to salvage his reputation while the church quietly insisted that, “on the balance of probabilities”, it believed the woman who claimed to have been abused. Now the findings of an independent inquiry undertaken by Lord Carlile have been made public.
Bell was seen as a champion of the underdog. He helped organise the kindertransport rescue of Jewish children from the Nazis, and later controversially criticised the RAF bombing of German civilians during the second world war. He described the killing of women and children as “barbarian” and a crime against humanity, asking: “How can the war cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilisation?”
His comments – deeply unpopular in a country at war – were widely thought to have cost him the job of archbishop of Canterbury when it twice became vacant in the 1940s. But in some quarters, his outspokenness made him a hero.
The George Bell Institute was founded in 1996 in honour of the former bishop, whom it described as “a friend of the oppressed … [and] a generous advocate for humanity at large”. He had an Anglican holy day named after him – the nearest thing in the C of E to beatification. In 2013, a BBC Great Lives radio documentary hailed him as a man of moral courage.
But that same year, a woman known as Carol wrote to Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, claiming Bell had sexually abused her when she was a child in the 1940s and 50s. It was not the first time Carol had come forward: in 1995 she told the then bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, and in 2012 she wrote to Lambeth Palace. No action was taken.
According to Carol’s account, the abuse began when she was five years old, when she was taken regularly to the bishop’s palace in Chichester by a relative who worked there. Bell, then in his 60s, would offer to read to the child while the relative worked.
“Then he’d start wriggling about with me on his lap. He started wriggling and then he started touching me, between my legs,” Carol told the Brighton Argus in February 2016. The bishop pulled her knickers aside to interfere with her. He told her not to tell anyone what happened. “He said it was our little secret, because God loved me.”
In a police statement, she said sometimes he made her touch his genitals; on other occasions he attempted to penetrate her with his penis after pulling her underwear aside. He ejaculated, telling her she was being anointed by God.
The alleged abuse continued until she was nine, when her family moved away, she said. Now in her 70s, she added: “It’s something that lives with you for the rest of your life. It never goes away.”
Two years ago, the C of E issued a formal apology to Carol and paid her £16,800 compensation. The current bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, spoke of a “devastating betrayal of trust” and the church cited a police statement that said Bell would have been arrested if he had still been alive.
Bell’s supporters were staggered. The swiftly established George Bell Group, which included academics, lawyers, politicians and church groups, accused the church of failing to properly investigate Carol’s claims and of not consulting Bell’s papers and diaries. “The valuable reputation of a great man, a rare example of self-sacrificing human goodness, has been carelessly destroyed on the basis of slender evidence sloppily investigated,” it said.
The former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said he was “frankly appalled” at the way the church had handled the allegations of abuse. Bell “was without question one of the greatest church leaders of the 20th century. The church has effectively delivered a guilty verdict without anything resembling a fair and open trial,” he wrote in a letter to Bell’s niece.
Carol, meanwhile, acknowledged that Bell “did some good”. But, she added, “to me he did harm. And sometimes I think the church likes to sweep those kinds of things under the table.”
All too mindful of that sentiment, the church commissioned Carlile to conduct an independent review into the case. “There are always lessons to be learned,” it said at the time.