CHURCH of England officials “rushed to judgement” when they concluded that a former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, had sexually abused a young girl in the 1950s, an independent review has concluded.
The committee that investigated the allegations, made by a woman known only as “Carol”, “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides”, Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer, found.
“As a result, it concluded all too easily that Carol was telling the truth and Bishop Bell was responsible for serious abuse,” he said.
Although the Church “acted throughout in good faith”, it was overly fearful of once again failing to listen to survivors of abuse. As a result, it over-corrected by rushing to judgement against the long-dead Bishop.
Lord Carlile also notes in his review that, besides unsubstantiated references in a local-newspaper article, “no one other than Carol has come forward to make allegations against Bishop Bell. This is despite the widespread publicity which the case has received.”
Although Lord Carlile’s brief did not included determining whether Bishop Bell was innocent of the charges, he concludes in his review: “For Bishop Bell’s reputation to be catastrophically affected in the way that occurred was just wrong.”
Responding to Lord Carlile’s criticism of the Church’s handling of the case, the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who leads the Church’s safeguarding work, acknowledged that the surviving relatives of Bishop Bell had suffered as a result of the child-abuse accusation. But so had Carol, he said. He apologised to both: “We are sorry that the Church has added to that pain through its handling of this case.”
There was no apology, however, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said in a statement that the decision to publish Bishop Bell’s name in the context of Carol’s allegations had been “taken with immense reluctance”.
He continued: “We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. No human being is entirely good or bad.”
Questioned about Archbishop Welby’s statement, Lord Carlile described it as “less than fully adroit”.
THE news about Bishop Bell broke in a C of E press release in October 2015, which announced without warning that the diocese of Chichester had apologised and reached a settlement with Carol after her allegations against Bishop Bell (News, 22 October 2015).
Bell has been regarded as one of the Church’s outstanding clerics of the 20th century, for, among other things, his public stand against the saturation bombing of Germany cities during the Second World War and his active support for the Kindertransport movement.
The review, commissioned last year after a fierce campaign by defenders of Bell (News, 25 November 2016), was published on Friday morning. Its terms of reference did not include determining Bishop Bell’s guilt or innocence: its purpose was to examine the procedures used by the C of E’s safeguarding team to reach their conclusion.
While the Church’s fears of repeating past mistakes and ignoring the victims of clerical abuse were valid, Bell’s right to a fair process was not “extinguished on death”, Lord Carlile concluded.
The C of E should never have publicised Carol’s allegations, and thereby “wrongly and unnecessarily damaged” Bishop Bell’s reputation.
The advice given to the Church was that, if Carol’s case had come to court, it would have been proved on the balance of probabilities. But Lord Carlile writes that, if the “core group” brought together to devise the Church’s response to the allegations had seen the evidence that his review had managed to uncover without great difficulty, the case would not have been thought strong enough even to be tested in court.
Lord Carlile’s report makes a series of recommendations about how future safeguarding inquiries should be conducted. The most significant is that alleged abusers, whether alive or dead, must not be named publicly unless an investigating core group finds a “proper basis of evidence” for the claims.
When a case results in a financial settlement without an admission of liability, as in the Bishop Bell case, there should be a confidentiality clause in the settlement to stop the accused’s name ever being published.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday after the publication of the report, Bishiop Hancock said that, while the national safeguarding team had accepted that its processes were “deficient”, it none the less rejected this recommendation, because of its commitment to transparency.
“We would look at each case on its merits, but generally would seek to avoid confidentiality clauses,” he said. “The Church has always affirmed and treasured Bishop Bell’s principled stand in the Second World War, and his contribution to peace remains extraordinary.
“At the same time, we have a duty and commitment to listen to those reporting abuse and to protect their interests.”
The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said that Bishop Bell’s good deeds would “stand the test of time”. “In every other respect, we have all been diminished by the case that Lord Carlile has reviewed.”
In a press conference after the review was published, Lord Carlile criticised the original 2015 statement for “hanging [Bishop Bell] out to dry”. Although this was not their intention, the statement left a clear impression that the C of E had found Bishop Bell guilty, he said.
Despite being pressed by reporters, Lord Carlile, a former Liberal Democrat MP and experienced barrister, declined to say whether he believed Bishop Bell to have been innocent. He did admit, however, that, had he been asked to prosecute Bell over Carol’s allegations, he would have lost the case.
The core group’s inquiries were “very weak”, he said, and failed even to speak to witnesses or find material that his own review had come across quickly and easily. It was “premature” for the C of E to come to a conclusion about Bishop Bell “before actively seeking the widest available evidence about what had happened at the time”.
The Church’s safeguarding team had believed Carol’s accusations to be true, and, therefore, “obvious lines of investigation were not followed,” Lord Carlile said. This led to “over-steering”: where the Church allowed its preconceptions to drive the outcome.
Bishop Hancock said that Lord Carlile rightly condemned the Church for this “over-steering”. But he insisted that changes had been made, with new guidelines and funding for the national safeguarding team, which was now better equipped to tackle similar cases.
Dr Warner conceded, none the less, that there was no guarantee that this would be the last review of safeguarding failures. There was more work to be done, but “the climate and character of the [safeguarding] work has changed for the better.”
The full review can be read here.