“When it comes to the Bishop Bell case, it would appear Archbishop Welby – and his Church lawyers – are attempting the same strategy [aka ‘pulling the same stunt’] as the Pope: Silence.
“But it seems to me, the Archbishop’s silence is of a different nature to that of the Pope. It is not a dignified, devotional silence. It is a silence more akin to that heard by an ostrich burying its mitred head in the ecclesiastical sand.
“Lord Carlile has already said everything that needs to be said. We really don’t have to wait for the Briden Report to tell us what we already know.
“Restoring 4 Canon Lane back to George Bell House would be proof enough of a change of heart within the Church hierarchy – and that change of heart was expected after the Carlile Report. It didn’t happen – and it hasn’t happened. Their hardened hearts appear to have turned into a deafening silence”
~ Richard W. Symonds
Case for Bishop Bell
Sir – The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, is not alone in being ashamed of the Church in its handling of child abuse cases in the Diocese of Chichester (report, March 22). So are quite a few others. And some of us would add that we are ashamed of Archbishop Welby too.
At the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse hearing on Wednesday, the Archbishop was questioned about his continuing attack on the late Bishop George Bell, whose reputation has been besmirched by what Lord Carlile, the Church’s own eminent appointee to examine its legal processes, has described as a very misguided rush to judgement on a single accusation of historic child sexual abuse.
The continued anger that the case has aroused has nothing to do with Bishop Bell’s eminent reputation. It has everything to do with the fact that no one has ever been allowed to present a case in his defence.
The recent effort by the family to appoint its own lawyer in a new investigation has been turned down by the Chichester authorities. And once again, the Archbishop missed a chance to affirm his belief in Bishop Bell’s innocence as presumed by the law.
When will the Archbishop have the grace to admit that the Church leaders responsible for handling the George Bell case – including himself – have made the most colossal error of judgement in this instance?
Dr Ruth Hildebrandt Grayson
Sheffield, South Yorkshire
Supporting victims of false allegations of abuse in an occupational setting
The importance of Bishop George Bell
Bishop George Bell (1883 – 1958) is famed for being one of the first to speak out against the dangers Hitler posed in the 1930s and for saving many lives during these years by guaranteeing refugees from Germany. He was one of the few to condemn our government’s obliteration bombing of German cities during the Second World War. He has been, and is, a revered and respected figure.
In 1995 (37 years after he had died) a complaint was made that Bell had abused a child in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The complaint was not passed to the police at the time but was passed to them when the complaint was repeated in 2013. The Church paid compensation to the complainant in 2015 and in 2016 the Church of England commissioned Lord Carlile to review their procedures concerning the investigation into the case. The resulting review was scathing in its criticism of the Church’s handling of the allegations against Bell. Lord Carlile concludes “The Core Group was set up in an unmethodical and unplanned way, with neither terms of reference nor any clear direction as to how it would operate. As a result, it became a confused and unstructured process, as several members confirmed” and “There was no organised or valuable inquiry or investigation into the merits of the allegations, and the standpoint of Bishop Bell was never given parity or proportionality.”
In spite of Carlile’s criticisms the Church remains undeterred in holding Bell responsible. Bell’s name stays removed from buildings, colleges and institutions and his reputation traduced. The problems inherent in a system, like the Church, concerning safeguarding and issues of justice affect all who work or are involved in a church. The case concerning Bishop George Bell has highlighted the flaws and gives no assurance that justice will be done for the accused as well as for the complainant.
As the George Bell Group writes, “Lord Carlile’s report has now left the Church with many searching questions, including how best to remedy the many defects in the current Practice Guidance so as to ensure that such an injustice can never recur.”
Unfortunately this injustice is already happening to innocent people in the Church.
A short biography of George Bell, who had been Bishop of Chichester for 27 years when he died in 1958, begins by acknowledging a recurring pattern regarding the reputation of notable people. It points out that after such people die, their reputations are often reshaped and defamed by harsh criticism not voiced during their lifetimes – but that the Bishop had managed to be an exception to this rule.
This claim, published in 1971, would no longer be written today. Whilst the memory of George Bell has been cherished over the past 60 years due to his significant support of the Protestant opposition to Hitler, his work in bringing over many non-Aryan refugees from Germany and his emphatic opposition to the bombing of civilians during the Second World War, Bell’s reputation is now at risk of being utterly decimated. A complaint made to the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013 accused Bell of having committed grotesque acts of child abuse in the 1940s and 50s. In response, the Church apologised and paid the accuser £16,800 in compensation. Various memorials, such as one proclaiming him a ‘champion of the oppressed’ in Chichester Cathedral, faced removal. An Eastbourne school, formerly known as the Bishop Bell Church of England School, has changed its name altogether.
Most would agree that this sort of action would be justified in the face of conclusive evidence against Bell. But it has since transpired that the church acted far too hastily. Following their acceptance of the abuse claims, a robust movement was sparked to defend Bell’s reputation, involving major journalists such as Charles Moore and Peter Hitchens. The Church then initiated an independent inquiry, led by Lord Carlile (one of the country’s top legal experts), which concluded that they had “rushed to judgement” and that the damage to Bell’s reputation was “just wrong”. Lord Carlile even went so far as to say that had he been prosecuting a case against Bell in court, Bell would have won. Nevertheless, this report was withheld by the Church for two months. After its eventual release, Justin Welby insisted that a “significant cloud” still hangs over Bell’s name in spite of Lord Carlile’s conclusions.
We should be equally concerned for protecting Bell’s reputation against false accusations as we are for spoiling his reputation over true accusations
This strange outcome highlights an element of mystery that has surrounded the Bell case. The initial claim against Bell was anonymous and the church revealed no details about the accusation when making their apology. As mentioned, it took two months for the Church to release the Carlile report after having received it. Once it was released, Justin Welby did not follow the logical implications of the report, but refused to retract his statements because of a vague belief in a “cloud”. On the 31st January, the enigmatic plot thickened when the Church announced that a further anonymous and unspecified accusation had been made and was being investigated. Some felt the timing of this was suspicious, given that a motion to debate the restoration of Bell’s reputation was due to be voted on at the Church’s General Synod the following week. Lord Carlile, who knew nothing of this accusation during his investigation, described the announcement as ‘unwise, unnecessary and foolish’. At the very least, we can all recognise the strange and stark asymmetry between the previous withholding of the completed Carlile investigation report and the eagerness of the recent announcement of an incomplete investigation. Things got worse when it emerged that the Church of England had refused to allow Mrs Barbara Whitley, Bell’s 93-year-old niece, to have the lawyer of her choice represent her side in the proceedings – instead choosing on her behalf someone who is neither a lawyer nor known to Mrs Whitley.
At this point, while many will sympathise with the active supporters of George Bell, which now includes leading groups of historians, theologians and church leaders who have written public letters asking for Welby to retract his statement, others feel a sense of unease. After all, it is of course possible that the accusations are true. Justin Welby, in a recent interview with the Church Times, said that the alleged victims should be “treated equally importantly” as the reputation of George Bell. Some would say this does not go far enough: surely we must be more concerned for the alleged victims, who are still living, over the reputation of someone who died 60 years ago?
The general nervousness of the Church of England’s handling of the Bell case must be related to the fact that the Church currently faces over 3,000 complaints of sexual abuse
Perhaps a better way of framing this would be to say that we should be equally concerned for protecting Bell’s reputation against false accusations as we are for spoiling his reputation over true accusations. The trouble is that most people have an instinctive tendency to find the latter much easier than the former. When the Church of England apologised and paid the first alleged victim in 2015, The Guardian ran the story with the headline “Church of England Bishop George Bell abused young child”. At that stage, nothing was known about the identity of the accuser nor the accusations, and yet headlines announced the claims as fact. Once the Carlile report was made public, it would have been no less factual to run the headline ‘George Bell declared innocent of abuse claims’, yet nobody did so. In fact, most would consider this overstepping the mark.
The general nervousness of the Church of England’s handling of the Bell case must be related to the fact that the Church currently faces over 3,000 complaints of sexual abuse (including both long-standing and recent accusations). Other high-profile cases of clergy committing child abuse, such as that of former bishop Peter Ball, have highlighted the shocking failures of senior clerics to listen to victims and pass allegations on to the police. Taking into consideration the sharp spike in awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse in society more broadly, following Weinstein, Larry Nassar and the #MeToo movement, it is not hard to imagine why the Archbishop of Canterbury would not want to stick his head above the parapet and defend the innocence of an archetypal establishment figure: a dead, white, male clergyman.
Courage, after all, comes at a cost. George Bell discovered this himself when his opposition to the bombing of innocent civilians during the Second World War put him on the wrong side of Winston Churchill, probably the main reason why he was never appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. In the absence of substantial evidence in support of the accusations against him, Bell’s reputation deserves to be defended. This is not only in the interest of truth, but also in the interest of maintaining a legacy of courageous leadership which is desperately needed among Bell’s clerical successors today.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has once again been dragged into a battle between traditionalists and modernisers. This time though it’s not about gay marriage or women bishops, but the tattered reputation of one of the Church of England’s most-celebrated figures, Bishop George Bell.
Justin Welby was sorely mistaken if he hoped commissioning an independent report into the claim that Bell was a child abuser would draw a line under this messy two-year row. Instead, the report found that the church has made mistakes in the way it handled the accusations. This infuriated Bell’s supporters, who always maintained his innocence. Now, some are calling for Welby to walk, or at least apologise. But he refuses to do either.
This response has done little to calm Bell’s supporters. Now, three open letters chastising Welby have been published. In one of these, a group of historians, including Sir Ian Kershaw, call for Welby to take back his remarks about Bell: ‘We cannot understand how such an unsupported, indeed insupportable, allegation can be upheld by a responsible public authority. Quite simply, it is indefensible’.
To make matters worse for Welby, a group of church leaders from across the world have also spoken out. ‘The way in which the allegations against him were dealt with has shocked people well beyond both the Anglican communion and Britain. There has been a miscarriage of justice for one who himself fought so earnestly for the victims of injustice,’ their letter says.
Yet still Welby refuses to budge. ‘The letter from the historians does not take into account…the past failures of the Church…The experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic’, he said.
The bust-up is now arguably about more than just Bell. Instead, it looks to be part of a wider war between two factions in the church: those who look back, and those who look forwards. The way in which Bell was promptly written out of history – buildings named after him were quickly re-named when the scandal first broke – seemed to some like a telling example of the progressive, thrusting, cavalier attitude they suspect also drives the CofE’s hierarchy. But for the clerics leading the church, there is little time for nostalgia for the ‘good old days’. They do not believe the church exists to venerate long-dead bishops and want to get on with the day job of doing God’s work.
So when the allegation arose against Bell, they had, it would seem, no interest in fighting to protect the reputation of one of the 20th century’s great Christian leaders. In the wake of other sex scandals that have plagued the church, the leadership was desperate to prevent a repeat of another cover up. Painfully aware of their dismal record in handling other historic cases of clerical abuse, the CofE ‘oversteered’ – to use Lord Carlile’s euphemism – in the other direction and rushed to condemn Bell, irrespective of what actually happened.
To the modernisers, this seemed like the logical and moral response to ensure the CofE could move on. Yet the irony is that in trying to dampen this row, Welby’s response has led to things blowing up. The fallout has also exposed the deep divisions rumbling at the heart of the Church of England. It is difficult to see how things will be solved amicably. And meanwhile, Bishop Bell’s name has been badly traduced.
Peers including the Bishop of Peterborough have called on the Government to protect the identity of people accused of a crime after their death.
One member of the House of Lords said Anglicans were “deeply ashamed” of the Church of England’s handling of the case of Bishop George Bell, who was accused of abusing a child several decades after his death in 1958.
A report published at the end of last year by Lord Carlile found that the highly-respected bishop’s reputation had been unnecessarily damagedby the Church when it publicly named him in an apology to the alleged victim in 2015.
In a debate in the House of Lords on Monday peers called on the Government to “uphold the cardinal principle that an individual is innocent until proved guilty”.
Official historian of the Conservative Party Lord Lexden asked home office minister Baroness Williams whether the Government would “review the law governing the naming of deceased individuals against whom criminal allegations have been made”.
He called on the Government to review the law in order to to ensure the anonymity of dead suspects accused by “one uncorroborated alleged witness”.
Fellow peer Lord Cormack added that the case was “deeply shocking” and said “the reputation of a great man has been traduced, and many of us who are Anglicans are deeply ashamed of the way that the Anglican Church has behaved”.
The Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister echoed the calls and added: “In all cases where the complainant has a right to be anonymous, there seems to be a case for the respondent also to be anonymous, and in cases until there is overwhelming evidence to suggest guilt, it seems reasonable for people’s reputations not to be damaged in this public way.”
However Baroness Williams said the Government “do not have plans to review the law”.
“Any decision to name an individual where that is considered to be in the public interest will necessarily be specific to the circumstances of an individual case,” she said.