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.
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Sir, — Canon Angela Tilby (Comment, 16 February) is indeed right to say in her column that those fighting for Justice in the George Bell case would be naïve to rest the case for his defence on his fine reputation. But they don’t.
The George Bell Group, the theologians, the lawyers, historians, academics, journalists, and, indeed, the independent reviewer Lord Carlile QC together present an overwhelming case that the evidence against Bishop Bell would not find its way to the criminal court at all were he to be alive.
Further, the evidence does not even meet the lower standard of proof, “the balance of probabilities”, required by the civil courts, now that he has passed away. In English law, he is innocent. The evidence would be too weak to take to court at all. Character references would not be required. Nevertheless, since when have character references been inadmissible in a court of English law?
In recent weeks we examined Joseph, who died and was buried in Shechem, where he had originally been thrown into the pit by his brothers. Shechem was in the heart of Israel — the Promised Land.
Joseph’s tomb in Shechem (also known as Nablus) is one of the three most sacred sites for the Jewish people.
But after Joseph’s death the narrative changes and the spotlight is on a new Pharaoh ‘who knew not Joseph’. ‘Knew not’ doesn’t mean that Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph. It means that Pharaoh and all he stands for utterly refuses to acknowledge the help and assistance given by Joseph and the Jewish people to the Egyptians during their time of famine. It means that Pharaoh resents Joseph’s considerable skills as psychologist and economist – areas in which the Jewish people were also to excel in the millennia to come.
And when Moses then arises to lead the Jewish people (most unwillingly, as we have seen, which is why G-d tells him that He will always be with them and comfort them wherever they are and in all situations), the Egyptians no longer make any secret of wishing the Jews dead – but (like the Nazis who will follow in their wake) first the Egyptians turn them into slaves and then, according to rabbinic teaching, they bury the Jewish children alive in the bricks used to build their huge metropolitan edifices known as pyramids.
This type of behaviour becomes so ingrained that it gets to the point where Pharaoh is no longer even capable of escaping the rut of his own making.
The Bible calls this syndrome ‘the hardening of one’s heart’.
Unfortunately, this syndrome continues to be very much in evidence today.
Exactly ten years ago I knew that I would have to return from Haifa to the UK. G-d knows I didn’t want to return. Israel was my home – I was Israeli – and I dreamed, felt and thought as an Israeli. I was involved in all sorts of academic, musical, educational and political enterprises – and one day I thought I might even get to grips with the weather.
But it was not to be, and a friend (who had an amazingly disparate library for an Israeli) gave me some novels by Susan Howatch. These novels were about the Church of England – based in the precincts of Salisbury Cathedral, and they had wonderful titles like Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers and the last one was called Absolute Truths.
But when I opened the Starbridge series in balmy Haifa during that fateful week of January 2008, I was hooked. For the books were littered with sayings by the greatest Anglican of the 20<sup>th century, Bishop George Bell. And I knew at once that here was an Anglican clergyman on a par with the Buddhist Dalai Lama who had persuaded me many years earlier to help promote the plight of the Burmese people, based on my own experience as the child of Holocaust survivors.
It’s not that I agreed with Bishop Bell on everything – especially not on the German people. For hadn’t the German people, the best educated in Europe at the time, voted for Hitler en masse (well after he had written Mein Kampf) Hadn’t the mass of Germans stood by on the whole when their Jewish population (who had lived in Germany for 2,000 years, were well established in the country, and had never exceeded 1 per cent of the population) became the butt of German ire, confusion and hate, and this especially in the intellectual classes, the clever young graduates with the PhDs who littered the ranks of the SS and the mass murderers?
No, I certainly didn’t agree with Bishop Bell on his benevolent view of the German people, but what shone through was that this man, against all the odds, had nagged and nagged well before war had broken out and insisted to the CofE that Jewish children should be brought into this country as a priority, and the CofE had resisted. Because Bishop Bell knew his Bible and he knew that Pharaoh, like Hitler, had said (Exodus 1:9), ‘Behold, the people, the children of Israel, are more numerous and stronger than us’.
Pharaoh/Hitler knew that this was a lie. The Jewish people in Germany as everywhere else were tiny and weaker than other peoples.
Currently the Jewish people comprise 0.2 per cent of the world population and around 0.3 per cent in the UK, just to give you some statistics.
But like all tyrants and people stuck in a rut, Pharaoh was, or had become, jealous. The Jews were a tiny people who had nothing but belief in the one G-d with whom they had a mutual and equal relationship – a covenant.
But people who are into power often have their minds closed and don’t understand covenants. They are not people who live with the past and the future. They live in the present and simply react.
So, despite (or because of) all their academic brilliance, the German people wanted to destroy the people of covenant. And Bishop Bell was perhaps the only person in the English Church at the time who fully understood this and acted, time and time again. In this trait he resembled Winston Churchill, who against all the odds, refused time and time again to appease.
And what has happened in our own day to Bishop Bell, the most righteous gentile who has ever graced this country?
What has happened is that new Pharaohs have arisen in the Church of England, for whom Bell’s ‘absolute truth’ is alien. These Pharaohs understand only ‘glittering images’ and ‘glamorous powers’. But when it comes to the biblical ‘still small voice’ of reason, or even the very British concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, these people in their smallness, envy and distortion of mind, prefer the cowardly option of ‘damage limitation’ and the breaking of reputations.
Lord Carlile was asked by the Church authorities to look into the way the investigation of this case was handled, and has concluded that the arrangements were shockingly cavalier and that as a result a man has been found guilty without any proof whatsoever.
You don’t have to be a lawyer to read the report. And on reading it myself, it is hard not to conclude that the evidence is overwhelming that Bell is a martyr not of the Church but by the Church. And if, after reading the report on the workings of the Church of England in this case, you agree with me, don’t you think that you should do something about it?
Because the biblical Moses was asked by G-d to entreat the Pharaoh of his time to let his own Jewish people go – in words that have enthused heroes such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.
But what Bishop Bell did in the 1930s was if anything even more heroic: what he did was to take on the entire Church establishment of the day to ask them to take in the tiny remnant of the Jewish community in Germany and eastern Europe. And this the Church establishment found too difficult to contemplate.
In our contemporary world of social media and soundbites, it is often the case that heroism is rapidly forgotten and reputations rapidly betrayed.
It is all too easy to reflect that there have indeed been many well-documented cases of abuse of both male and female children. But every case should be seen on its own merits, using that very English attribute of common-sense.
But common-sense has flown out the window on this one. And, to add insult to injury, the ever-changing group charged by the Church to investigate the evidence seriously considered approaching the Kindertransport children who Bell had succeeded in bringing in to the country, to ensure that they had not been harmed by their saviour. These guardians of the Church apparently didn’t even stop to consider that most of the Kindertransport children will now be in their nineties, with very confused memories.
So who are the heroes in this story? The heroes are Bishop Bell himself, Lord Carlile and the George Bell Group, which includes people from every wing of the political and religious spectrum.
Let us hope that the leadership of the Church of England takes note, issues a swift apology and takes steps to rectify its gross miscarriage of justice. Saying sorry isn’t always the option of weaklings, after all, at least not according to Jewish teaching.
Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible.
Statement of 9 December by the George Bell Group, in response to the announcement on 23 November 2016 that Lord Carlile is to be the independent case reviewer.
The George Bell Group welcome the announcement on 23 November 2016 that Lord Carlile of Berriew is to be the independent reviewer of the process which led to the statement by the Church of England on 22 October 2015 that the Bishop of Chichester had issued a formal apology following the settlement of a legal civil claim regarding allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop Bell.
In their own Review of the case, dated 17 March 2016, the George Bell Group strongly urged that justice to the memory of Bishop Bell demanded that there should be ‘” proper review of both the process and the evidence which resulted in the October statement”. Although the announcement of Lord Carlile’s Review states that it will “look at the processes surrounding the allegations”, the Group note that by its Terms of Reference it “will provide a detailed evidence-based analysis of the responses and decision making processes concerning the case”. Accordingly, we welcome the statement made by Lord Carlile, as reported in the Church Times on 25 November 2016, that “investigating the Church’s own inquiries into the truth of Carol’s complaint would be the ‘heart’ of his job”, and his further statement that “material from both inside and outside the C of E would be considered, including any written evidence submitted by Bell’s defenders”. We trust we can infer from this that Lord Carlile does not intend to limit his review to examining “process”, but will look afresh at the validity or otherwise of the allegations made against Bishop Bell. We welcome this warmly and will be making a detailed submission to the Review.
The Group further notes that it is the Church of England which will “determine whether the full report can be sufficiently redacted or otherwise anonymised to enable its publication without risking disclosure of the complainant’s identity”. We have never sought to have the anonymous complainant identified. However the continuing refusal of the Church to publish its evidence, even in redacted form to protect her identity, and the failure to disclose clearly the process by which its “Core Group” reached their conclusions has created much public misgiving. On that account, once Lord Carlile’s Review is complete the maximum transparency possible will be crucial to redressing that misgiving and regaining public confidence.