Anne Dawson on “Bishop Bell – Mistaken Identity?”
Rebuilding a bridge is a delicate, and at times hazardous, undertaking. Repairing a bridge over troubled waters is not a task for the faint-hearted. The issues around Bishop Bell are complex, but the intention of the Church Authorities is straightforward: to come out appearing in the best possible light.
On a trajectory intending to reverse the decades of harm the C of E inflicted by indifference and denial concerning sexual abuse, the result is that the balance is tilted too far towards favouring claimants. The policy of the NST [National Safeguarding Team], that allegations will be believed and accepted without evidence, has had catastrophic consequences.
The sequence of decisions leading to settling ‘Carol’s’ claim has entrenched the NST into a position from which it is difficult to back track. It is tragic to have reached this point, which could have been avoided, by a more fair–minded approach from the NST.
Memories of a child, reported after a time lapse of over four decades. are NOT facts. However, I think that ‘Carol’s’ uncorroborated memories have a kernel of truth in them. Believing her account in its entirety is unsafe, as there is too great margin of error to uphold such a serious matter as destroying the reputation of Bishop Bell.
Reconstruction of childhood events over a long passage of time are viewed through the lens of subsequent life experiences. ‘Carol’ – or anyone looking back on their childhood many decades ago – has ‘anchor points’ for memory reconstruction that are highly subjective. Working with children for many years, I have seen children easily get confused about the hierarchy of who is in charge. It is common error to ascribe the lead person associated with a place, or institution, with other adults. What I mean is, ‘Carol’ may have thought a man was a Bishop because she came across him in the Bishop’s house. With this hypothesis, a random cleric would not even have deliberately feigned to be Bishop Bell, but have assumed that character in the mind of Carol. This theory maintains ‘Carol’s’ credibility, and her personal truth as she understands it.
Having raised this hypothesis with Richard Symonds, he put me in touch with Geoffrey Boys, whose account is compelling concerning mistaken identity. Mr Boys has given evidence to the Core Group which I understand is in the Briden report…
The NST maintain they place a high priority on transparency but do not conduct themselves with transparency. The following statement by Colin Perkins demonstrates this.
“From my point of view, from the perspective you just described, that would have
effectively been saying, ‘We are not accepting your claim. We are not going to apologise. We are going to perhaps provide some monetary settlement and we are
going to require you to sign a non-disclosure agreement’. That is exactly the opposite of where I think the church should be on this issue” [ IICSA Transcript – March 16 – Page 30]
There was a simple solution by stating, ‘We have heard the claimant’s story and believe she has suffered abuse. We admit admission of liability and apologise, but we cannot determine the identity of the abuser. We have made a settlement on this basis and wish to maintain the reputation of Bishop Bell.We have nothing to hide.’ The NST just needed to come clean about saying as it is; there are no facts, but they compensated Carol because they believe she was abused, albeit without proof of by whom.
The historian Herodotus, 2500 years ago, observed that of all rites performed by humans, those concerning the dead are most sacrosanct. This holds true for all people throughout all ages. I was shocked that Archbishop Welby, as head of our national church, has it within him to hurt Bishop Bell’s legacy so grievously (statement dated 22.1.2018.) A person’s worth does not diminish by death, unless you are the Archbishop of Canterbury and you feel empowered to say what you like about the dead. Defaming George Bell, without evidence, reverses the universal value in all cultures and faiths of honouring forefathers – which is one of the defining features of humanity
Archbishop Welby: “I think the greatest tragedy of all these cases is that people have trusted, very often, those who were locally, in diocesan terms, or nationally Titanic figures, and have then found that they were not worthy of their trust. The fact that someone is a titanic figure doesn’t tell you anything at all, except that they have done remarkable things in one area. It doesn’t tell you about the rest of their lives. And it is not something that we can take into account” [IICSA Transcript – Wednesday March 21]
The Archbishop is entitled to his opinion, even if it is controversial and incongruent with many within the church. But his words are not backed by investigating the facts. IF the Archbishop had invited he historian, Andrew Chandler, (author of Bell’s biography 2016) to the Core Group and IF there was legal representation of Bishop Bell’s family (whom the Core Group failed to trace), then the Archbishop could claim some validity to his statement. However, the lack of representation on behalf of George Bell and his niece Mrs Barbara Whitley, demonstrates that Archbishop Welby has no authentic understanding of the man he demolishes. His rigorous dismissal of the collective wisdom of the scholars and theologians who have written open letters to the Archbishop (letters 16/17/24.1.2018) suggest reckless defamation. I am reluctant to criticise the Archbishop, but he has side-stepped fully examining George Bell’s life.
In conclusion, I do not want to be angry or sad, but to celebrate the life of Bishop Bell, despite the efforts of Archbishop Welby and the NST to destroy his legacy. The case of Cliff Richard displays how disproportionally empowering claimants has caused deep trauma. Thankfully Sir Cliff has been fully cleared of abuse, but the toll on his physical and mental health has been very high. The Archbishop’s statements about George Bell are spoken with the authority of his role, but entitlement does not equate with truth and justice.
Anne Dawson, 19th January 2019
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.