The Archbishop of Canterbury was accused yesterday of persisting with a “malign” attack on Bishop George Bell after he refused to exonerate him following a “copycat” allegation of historic child sex abuse.
An official report published yesterday concluded that a 70-year-old allegation against Bishop Bell was unfounded. It found that the evidence of the complainant – a woman named only as “Alison” – was “unreliable” and “inconsistent”.
Alison had written to the Church of England, claiming she had been sexually assaulted by the bishop in 1949 when she was aged nine.
The letter was sent a week after the Church of England was found to have wrongly besmirched Bishop Bell in its handling of a previous complaint brought by a woman known only as “Carol”.
The latest report suggested that Carol’s allegation had “prompted a false recollection in Alison’s mind”.
Yesterday, the Most Rev Justin Welby “apologised unreservedly for the mistakes” in the handling of the complaint made by Carol. But he declined to publicly clear the former Bishop of Chichester of any wrongdoing or retract a statement that he had a “significant cloud … over his name” and that he had been accused of “great wickedness”.
In a private letter, however, sent to Bishop Bell’s closest surviving relative, his niece Barbara Whitley, he wrote: “Once again I offer my sincerest apologies both personally and on behalf of the Church. We did wrong to you and before God.”
Bishop Bell, one of the towering figures of the Church in the 20th century, has been unable to defend himself, having died in 1958. But his supporters urged the Church to restore his reputation after two reports exonerated him.
Ms Whitley, 94, said yesterday: “I would like to see my uncle’s name cleared before I die.”
Desmond Browne QC, a leading barrister who acted for the bishop’s family and who was christened by him in 1949, said: “What is now clear is that the investigations by two experienced lawyers [have established] George Bell’s innocence. But not once [has] the Archbishop of Canterbury offered Bell the presumption of innocence.”
Alison had alleged that Bell, the former bishop of Chichester, had sat her on his lap and “fondled her”.
But the report by Timothy Briden, an ecclesiastical lawyer and vicar general of Canterbury, concluded that in her oral evidence “her attempts to repeat what had been written in the letter displayed, however, a disturbing degree of inconsistency”.
Alison had alleged in the letter the abuse had taken place indoors in front of her mother but in oral testimony thought she had been assaulted outdoors. He concluded that her claim was “unfounded”.
The existence of Alison’s complaint made in December 2017 was made public by the Church of England at a time when it was facing increasing criticism for its handling of the earlier allegation by Carol. Alison’s claim was passed in January 2018 to police, who then dropped the case.
Mr Briden also investigated a separate complaint made by an 80-year-old witness – known only as K in the report – that his mother had told him that she had seen Bishop Bell “carrying out a sexual act with a man over his Rolls-Royce” in 1967.
Bishop Bell died in 1958 and did not have a Rolls-Royce. The report said: “The longer that the statement from K’s mother is analysed, the more implausible it appears.”
Lord Carlile, the QC who carried out the damning inquiry into the handling of Carol’s claim, was scathing of the Church of England’s decision to make public the police inquiry into Alison’s complaint.
Lord Carlile said: “I am astonished that the Church [made] public the further complaint against Bishop Bell and the error has been proved by the conclusion of this latest inquiry.”
Prof Andrew Chandler, Bishop Bell’s biographer and spokesman for the George Bell Group, said “the claim by Alison appeared a copycat of Carol’s complaint”. Carol was paid £15,000 compensation in a legal settlement in October 2015.
In his statement yesterday, Archbishop Welby described Bishop Bell as a “remarkable role model”, adding: “I apologise unreservedly for the mistakes made in the process surrounding the handling of the original allegation against Bishop George Bell.”
But he went on: “It is still the case that there is a woman who came forward with a serious allegation … and this cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet.”
The current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, also declined yesterday to exonerate his predecessor. But he accepted that a public statement he made signifying Bishop Bell’s guilt and released in 2015 after Carol’s claim was settled was probably now an error.
“Knowing what we now do [we] would want to re-examine that and I don’t think we would [make that statement].”
Update on Safe Spaces following media report
Update on Safe Spaces following media report
A spokesperson for the National Safeguarding Team said: “Safe Spaces is planned as a vital support service for survivors of church-related abuse across the Church of England and the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
“The delay in progressing the support service, first officially discussed in 2014, is a matter of regret which the Church of England acknowledges and apologises for. But since the appointment of a project manager and the creation of the Safe Spaces Management Board last year eight survivor representatives from across both Churches are involved in ensuring we find the right organisation to deliver the project.
“Their knowledge, skill and personal experience in shaping the model for Safe Spaces alongside their commitment and support for the procurement process is integral to finding the right organisation to deliver the project.
“All grant money from both churches and ATL has been ring fenced for the project and no money from the £592,000 grant has been spent to date, and no new company has been set up. Pre set-up costs, procurement, project management and development are separate to this and the cost is being shared across both Churches.
“Following an initial procurement process, the Board has agreed that it would not be recommending the appointment of a preferred supplier to deliver the project; this decision was taken in partnership with the survivor representatives.
“Over the coming weeks the Board in partnership with survivors will agree the next steps and the best way forward. Survivor voices remain central to any future success of this new service and their welfare and support is an absolute priority for the Church in its continuing safeguarding work.
“Both churches are committed to supporting survivors of church-related abuse and providing an independent national service for survivors of any form of church-related abuse.”
by Denton Staff Contributor — December 15, 2019
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
This 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 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?
Sad Times in the Church of England
For most of my life I have been an active member of the Church of England, and felt fortunate to be so. Suddenly I no longer feel that way. Since Justin Welby became Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013, the Church has been changing its nature and ceasing to be the organization I used to know.
My chief reason for saying this is the scandal relating to George Bell (1883–1958), who was bishop of Chichester from 1929 to his death. Bell is a man who would have been recognized as a saint, if the Church of England went in for saint-making. In the early 1930s he was active in support of workers harmed by the economic depression of that period. Then from 1934 on he became the leading voice outside Germany publicizing and protesting against Nazi anti-Semitic measures, supporting the section of the German Evangelical Church which opposed the Nazis, and helping Jewish refugees from Nazism. After World War II was under way, Bell was one of the very few public figures who condemned and used his role in Parliament to try to change the Allied policy of area bombing of civilian populations. Since the war it has been widely recognized that the bombing campaign was a barbaric stain on the British historical conscience, but at the time Bell’s stand attracted hostility, including from fellow church leaders. Bell tried to organize help for the anti-Nazi resistance within Germany, but was rebuffed by the British government – Bell believed that our government could have helped the July 1944 Hitler assassination plot to succeed, but instead chose to act in a way which ensured its failure. After the war, Bell was a leading proponent of magnanimity in victory, protesting for instance at the ethnic cleansing of Germans from Eastern European countries.
In 2013, when Bell had been dead more than half a century, one woman, “Carol”, complained to the new Archbishop that between the ages of five and nine she had been sexually abused by Bell. This was a period of public moral panic about sexual abuse of children. A number of appalling cases had come to light, involving people such as a recently-deceased show business personality, a still-living bishop, and a number of men from Muslim immigrant families who treated naive young white girls as meat to be passed round from bed to bed. As a result people, including the police, seemed disposed to take seriously even the flimsiest and most implausibly lurid allegations against public figures.
In the case of Bishop Bell, the Church rushed to accept “Carol’s” story with no apparent willingness to consider that the allegations might be false (although everyone by then could see that there was money to be made from false accusations). After holding an enquiry at which George Bell’s living relatives were not allowed to appoint a lawyer to defend Bell, the Church declared that it accepted the allegations, and paid “Carol” a substantial sum in compensation. A church school named after Bishop Bell was given a new name, and other similar moves were made to blot out the memory of Bell as a great man.
Many individual voices within the Church protested at this travesty of normal standards of justice and due process, but they were ignored, until in 2016 the Church asked the senior lawyer Lord Carlile to review the way it had dealt with “Carol’s” allegations. His conclusion was that the Church had “rushed to judgement” and “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides”; but this led to no change of heart on the part of the Church authorities. In January 2018 they claimed that they had “fresh evidence” against Bell (a statement which Lord Carlile said ought not to have been made public when the details were not revealed and so could not be tested).
Obviously the worry, for those of us who feel shocked by all this, has been that if we were privy to whatever confidential information the Archbishop has, perhaps we would realize that the allegations were well-founded. But in March 2018 the man who had been “safeguarding officer” for Chichester diocese when the Church accepted the allegations made a statement which appeared to imply that the real reason for that acceptance had been, not conviction of their probable truth, but a desire to mitigate an uninsured financial risk in case of further similar allegations. (See p. 9 of The Spectator for 24 Mar 2018 – and see also a hard-hitting letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph on the same date from Dr Ruth Grayson.)
This is not what we expect from the Church. What authority can it have to preach to us that care for other people should take precedence over our selfish financial interests, if it throws one of its great men to the wolves as soon as its own finances are threatened?
Justin Welby came to ministry unusually late, after an early career in the oil industry. The behaviour of the Church in the Bell case seems to reflect norms of the commercial world, where a firm will routinely trim its sails to shifts in public opinion so as to avoid any conflict which might threaten profits. From the Church we expect higher standards, and before the tenure of the current archbishop we got them.
A second episode which has reinforced my doubts about the Church today also relates to the current panic about “safeguarding children and vulnerable adults”. Our Deanery encouraged us to attend a training session on this subject, organized by our Diocese, at which most of the talking was by a woman who used to be in the police but has now been appointed by the diocese to improve safeguarding standards. The tiny congregation in our parish doesn’t really have children or vulnerable adults, but I dutifully went along. After a chunk of bureaucratic guff of interest only to administrators, the bulk of the session revolved round a series of hypothetical scenarios which we were invited to consider and decide whether they warranted reporting to the police. We were told “Say what you think – there are no right or wrong answers.” But when a couple of us ventured to put an alternative to the speaker’s point of view (in one case in particular, relating to money rather than sex, it seemed very easy to imagine that rushing to the police could do more harm than good), the shutters immediately came down. The speaker’s view was right, we were wrong, no discussion. From comments in the national press it appeared that churchgoers all over the country were having similar experiences.
Again this is not the Church of England I thought I knew. One of the strong points of our national church has been that (in contrast to the Roman Catholic church) it is not intellectually authoritarian. It has not, in recent centuries, presumed to impose a single correct point of view in areas where in reality truth is grey and debatable. For a policewoman it is natural to see the world in crudely legalistic black and white terms, that is their déformation professionelle. But one looks to the Church for a more nuanced and tentative (and hence more morally realistic) attitude.
On the other hand it is clearly true that in the current climate of public opinion, informing on one’s neighbour whenever one thinks one might have detected any vague hint of impropriety is the “safe” thing to do, never mind whether it might be a recipe for an unhealthy society.
What does an ordinary man in the pew do in this situation? Living where I do it would be difficult to transfer allegiance to one of the nonconformist churches, even supposing their current standards were better, and at the parish level I am very happy with my church. Furthermore Welby will not be Archbishop for ever. So I suppose I will struggle on in the Church of England for the immediate future at least. But my enthusiasm is severely dimmed. If I were not a member already, I would not feel tempted to join.
— I wrote the above in April 2018. Two months later, Welby did it again! That June he made a public speech in which he described the European Union as “the greatest dream realized for human beings” since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. I am not sure how dreamy the Roman Empire was, but more to the point: in terms of political wisdom shown by different people co-operating to create lasting structures which succeed in reconciling the conflicting interests and ideals of numerous individual inhabitants, both the gradual evolution of the Swiss Confederation since the thirteenth century, and the creation of the USA in the eighteenth, knock spots off the EU. Quite a lot even of those who voted Remain in our referendum would agree, I believe. I didn’t get the impression that they mostly voted in a spirit of “Isn’t the EU great!” Some may have, and Welby was evidently one of them, but there was a great deal of “Safer to stick with what we’ve got, getting out might prove even worse”.
Is Welby on a one-man campaign to ensure that thinking people want nothing to do with the Anglican Communion in future? In August 2019 he announced that he was chairing a group whose aim is apparently to frustrate our current Prime Minister’s attempts finally to get Britain out of the EU. It astonishes me that the head (under the Queen) of the national Church can think it appropriate to act as a partisan in a matter of political controversy in this way. (Does he think that those of us who warmly support Boris Johnson’s approach are for that reason bad Christians?) A view which seems much more appropriate for a man of God was expressed in early 2019 by Jonathan Sacks, until 2013 the Chief Rabbi of the UK, who said in effect (I haven’t got his words in front of me) that the principle of government in a democracy being subordinate to the wishes of the population is so important that, even if our rulers were thoroughly convinced that Britain leaving the EU would be a serious mistake, once the referendum was held in 2016 and the majority was for Leave, they must ensure that we leave.
Early in 2019, the Bell story took a new turn. A further official report by Timothy Briden, an ecclesiastical lawyer and the Vicar General of Canterbury, found that the accusations against Bishop Bell were “inconsistent” and “unreliable”. One 80-year-old witness had said that his mother had told him that she had seen Bishop Bell “carrying out a sexual act with a man over his Rolls-Royce” back in 1967. Bishop Bell never had a Rolls. It was obvious that this and the rest of the salacious tittle-tattle was the product of warped, attention-seeking imaginations. Yet the Archbishop still refused publicly to exonerate Bell. He accepted that the original inquiry was mishandled, but said “It is still the case that there is a woman who came forward with a serious allegation … and this cannot be ignored” (Daily Telegraph, 25 Jan 2019). Bell’s successor as current Bishop of Chichester took the same line. The Bell family’s barrister, Desmond Browne QC, commented: “the investigations by two experienced lawyers [have established] George Bell’s innocence. But not once [has] the Archbishop of Canterbury offered Bell the presumption of innocence.”
The authorities in charge of the Archbishop’s own cathedral, Canterbury, announced that they plan to install a statue of Bishop Bell in one of the niches in the west wall, which typically contain figures of saints. Remarkably, the Archbishop responded that this would be a fine idea. I think that is called running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. It seems obvious that the Archbishop knows perfectly well that Bishop Bell was innocent of the charges against him, but he won’t come out and say so, because he is terrified that there might be some legal or financial come-back for the institution he is running.
This is the man whose job it is to inspire the population to be soldiers for Christ?
Also in 2019, other unwelcome features of the new-look Church of England emerged. In January it appointed a new national adviser for income generation, Jonathan de Bernhardt Wood, who had published a book on the subject (promoted on several Church websites) recommending the “target[ing of] those most vulnerable to our fundraising message”, namely “single, elderly, poor females”, and advocating signing church members up to bank standing orders, which he saw as “God’s special gift to fundraisers” partly because people often forget to stop them. “Fundraising through forgetfulness may not seem particularly noble or principled, but it is pragmatic, and in fundraising pragmatism is king … In my book … the ends justify the means.” (Reported in the Daily Telegraph, 25 March 2019.)
Then in August we heard that the beautiful 11th–12th century cathedral at Norwich had installed a large helter-skelter in its nave, with rides costing £2 a time. Some of us who see churches as important buildings think of them as places for contemplating serious, sometimes grim topics – ones that adults must sometimes face, and where better than in a church? They are not intended as indoor funfairs.
Why is it that when organizations like churches – or universities, in which I made my own career – decide that they ought to act like businesses, they always seem to choose the shabbiest, fly-by-night type of businesses as models?
last changed 2 Sep 2019
Letters to the Editor
How should a line be drawn under the Bell affair?