‘Murder in the cathedral’
We could call this affair ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, for it is about the ruthless murder of a great reputation, and it took place in and around the ancient cloisters of Chichester Cathedral in Sussex. The attack was made in broad daylight by respectable Englishmen. It is a detective story, and like all the best such stories it is set in beautiful English surroundings, the lovely Bishop’s Palace, in the serene and tranquil close in that ancient walled Roman city.
A disgusting charge
What we are led to believe is that among these dappled gardens and old stone walls, a seemingly holy, white-haired old man, revered around the world for his moral courage and apparent saintliness, repeatedly did disgusting things to an innocent little girl left in his care.
The charge has been made by one person. Since it was made, in both national and local media, neither the Sussex police nor the NSPCC which advertised a helpline, have heard of any further accusations of the same type against George Bell, though criminals of this type seldom restrict themselves to one victim. The charge remains solitary, ancient and uncorroborated, yet an astonishing number of people and media have chosen to believe it, and treat it as if it were true.
All or nothing
To me, it is all or nothing. If this charge is true, with its horrible selfish, lying exploitation of a defenceless child, with the name of God greasily profaned (in the alleged words allegedly said to the alleged victim ‘This is just our little secret, because God loves you’), none of George Bell’s reputation as pastor, statesman, scholar or man survives. Good and evil are ultimately done in minute particulars. I had the impression from some study of his life that George Bell was a man of great personal kindness, loved by all who knew him, and it was this goodness and honesty which impelled him to take the unpopular and difficult stands he did take.
‘A millstone hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea’
If he betrayed a small child while pretending to look after her, a supreme act of selfish dishonesty, then ‘It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.’ But his goodness is so important to me that I cannot believe this accusation, unless and until it is proven beyond reasonable doubt. And it has not been. And now there is more doubt than before. I seek only permission to disbelieve this charge, and ask that others – who do believe it – recognise that it is legitimate for people like me to disbelieve it, that it is an allegation, not a proven charge, and that they stop trying to wipe George Bell’s name from the record, or to equivocate ludicrously about how he could still have been a great man as well as a revolting, unctuous paedophile. He couldn’t have been. One or the other. Not both.
George Kennedy Allen Bell, by the time of these alleged events, was a man of 65, apparently happily married. He was the son of a vicar. He had won scholarships to Westminster School and then to Oxford, where he had also won a major poetry prize. Two of his beloved brothers had died in the trenches, in the final months of the First World War. Another became a senior officer in British occupation forces in post-1918 Germany before taking up teaching and becoming head of a Public School, ending his life as a keen spokesman for the Moral Rearmament movement. His sister married a bishop. Their child, Barbara Whitley, is George Bell’s niece, now aged 92, his only surviving close relative.
A shy man who stammered
I have heard suggestions, not easily confirmed, that a bout of mumps in adolescence may have made George Bell sterile, hence the childlessness. The marriage appears to have been contented and companionable by all accounts. Choirboys who sang in the Cathedral remember the Bishop with affection as a shy man who stammered, deeply devout and an ‘upright, entirely moral figure who meant a great deal to us as children’, as one of them, Tom Sutcliffe, recently recalled. He died ten years later, much-honoured and loved, and at the time no breath of scandal ever came near him.
Blackballed by Churchill, jeered at by Noel Coward
He was renowned for several things. He had persuaded the great poet T.S.Eliot to write the play ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ for its first performance in Canterbury (where Bell was once Dean). Eliot greatly respected him, as did many others in the spheres of the arts and music to whom he was kind, helpful and generous. But he was also an early opponent of the Nazis and a loyal friend to the German resistance to Hitler, much beloved by the refugees he saved and by that great hero of Christian resistance to National Socialist terror, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was an unvarying and powerful support to refugees from Hitler’s tyranny, when this was not popular. He is believed to have saved many lives through using his influence to win asylum for them. He was particularly concerned for for the fate of German Jews who had converted to Christianity. His private life was austere and filled with hard work. Despite making a fair amount of money from successful books, he left little in his Will and is believed to have given much of the money away. T.S. Eliot, on first meeting him, was pleased and surprised to find a Prince of the Church who travelled by rail in a third-class carriage. Later, he became known and disliked by some, for having spoken publicly against the RAF bombing of German civilians in their homes – a stand that very probably caused Winston Churchill to prevent his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury. It is also said to have inspired Noel Coward’s sarcastic little song ‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’ (which now sounds embarrassingly triumphal given the ultimate outcome of events and our subservience to a revived Germany through membership of the EU). The line ‘We might send them out some bishops as a form of lease and lend’ is pretty certainly a reference to George Bell’s unpopular insistence, even in the depths of war, that we should not regard all Germans as Nazis.
A good time to expose him?
Had anyone wished to air any private misdeeds by Bishop Bell, and expect a ready audience, this wartime and postwar unpopularity (still in evidence at the time of the alleged offences) would have been a good moment to do so. And in fact this means he was probably rather less protected from exposure (had anything been there to be exposed) than most public figures of his age.
After he died in 1958, reverence superseded controversy and schools and other buildings were named after him. An elegant but modest memorial to him was placed in the Cathedral, not far from the famous Arundel Tomb made famous by the great poet Philip Larkin, where a mediaeval knight and his wife, in effigy, hold each other’s hands – demonstrating, as Larkin wrote, that ‘what will survive of us is love’.
‘Carol’ won’t speak to me
Not in this case. The little girl in the story, having kept silent for more than 40 years and become a middle-aged woman with children of her own, complained in 1995 that George Bell had sexually abused her. Her identity is a secret, but she uses the name ‘Carol’. I have sought to meet her and ask her about her story, but she has declined, though she has given three interviews to other reporters. ‘Carol’ said that a member of the Palace staff, a relative of hers, had brought her into the Palace. We know that this person, almost certainly a woman, existed. But she is long dead. The Church authorities refuse to say (there are a lot of such refusals in this story) whether they interviewed her before she died. Carol alleged that the Bishop had repeatedly interfered with her under the pretext of reading her stories while she sat on his knee, between the ages of five and nine, on many occasions. She said her protests had been ignored in the deferential society of those days.
The Chauffeur investigates
In 1995, when she first made her complaint, child abuse did not attract the attention it now does. She was offered counselling, and refused it. The Bishop of the time, the late Eric Kemp, asked around the older Palace servants, especially Charles Monk, who had been George Bell’s driver, and who had lived (with his wife and daughter) next door to the Palace. Mr and Mrs Monk, like so many people in this story, are now dead. He said he knew of no evidence that any such thing had been going on. Silence descended again until 2012 when Carol complained again, first to Archbishop Rowan Williams, who by then had left office and never received her letter, and then to Archbishop Justin Welby. There was a mix-up about her complaint to Rowan Williams, which seems to have been nobody’s fault. What is certain is that another Archbishop, George Carey, was not involved, and Carol has apologised for claiming wrongly that Lord Carey (as he now is) had ignored a letter from her.
A very clever lawyer
This time the Church acted. We do not know very much about what they did, as Lambeth Palace and the Chichester Diocese mostly refuse to say. We know that they supplied ‘Carol’ with a counsellor, of whom more later, and an intermediary who put her in touch with the Bedford law firm Emmott Snell whose senior partner, Tracey Emmott, has been extremely successful in pursuing abuse cases against the Church and achieved a major change in the law, making churches responsible (as they were not before) for the actions of their clergy.
In her interview with the Brighton ‘Argus’, ‘Carol’ cites the Church’s decision to pay her compensation out of court as evidence in her favour. ‘Then why did the Church pay me?’, she asked . ‘They must have believed me, I assume’. She may be right. But belief in such matters is a complex thing, understood, alas, by fewer and fewer people. English law does not make an all-or-nothing distinction between believing an allegation and disbelieving it, or witnesses for the losing side in any case would be open to prosecutions for perjury. It asks for proof beyond reasonable doubt.
A short lesson in the Law of England
By rejecting a criminal allegation, it does not classify the accuser as a liar (though some in the Church, involved in this case, seem to think so). It classifies him or her as someone whose claim may (or may not) be true, but is not proven to this standard.
And by paying a plaintiff in a civil claim, a defendant is not necessarily saying that he or she believes or accepts the claim. Going to trial is expensive and unpredictable. Both sides usually seek to avoid it, especially now that lawyers (working on a no-win, no-fee basis, as they usually do) have much more limited rights to extract their fees from the courts.
Who’s going to care about a dead Bishop?
By 2013, a number of court cases had put the Church in a weak position. Many abuse cases had been proven. The Church’s liability for the actions of all clergy was (see above) established. It’s quite possible the Church’s insurers advised that the best thing to do was to settle – a rather modest payment of £15,000 reflected the long time between alleged crime and accusation. You can see the thinking. Chichester ( see especially the case of Bishop Peter Ball), had a bad reputation for child abuse, and for not doing enough about it. It was a good moment for a decisive action. The only person who would suffer was a long-dead Bishop, who had nobody present to speak for his interests. Who would object? As far as anyone knew, George Bell had no living relatives, and he was, surely, a forgotten figure.
A statement was issued saying that a payment had been made and an apology (whose full text was never published) was issued. We still don’t know exactly what the apology (in the name of the current Chichester Bishop Martin Warner) was for. It may have been for the failure of his forerunner, Eric Kemp, to handle the case properly in 1995.
An odd thing to say
The Sussex police proclaimed that if George Bell had been alive, they would have arrested him. They now say that the Chichester Diocese involved them in the matter, and this was not their initiative. This was an odd thing to say, since identities of arrested persons aren’t revealed when they’re alive, and, as the Church would repeatedly say, it wasn’t a criminal matter, just a civil case. Also, only about 25 per cent of people arrested in such cases are ever charged, so it is not the indication of guilt it seemed to many people to be. In many conversations I have had about this, discussing the credibility of the charge, the police statement has been cited by almost everyone who has chosen to believe the allegations. They have seen it as strong evidence that they are true. Actually, it is nothing of the sort, but it looks as if it is, and this is what counts in an increasingly uneducated society.
The police’s only lawful duty if the alleged perpetrator is dead (I have checked this) was to record the alleged crime. They refuse to say what enquiries they made beyond interviewing Carol, or indeed if they made any other enquiries at all. But it may well have been that police statement which made many people think there was no doubt about it, and another paedophile priest had been got bang to rights. Whatever it was, though the Church never said Bishop Bell was guilty, local and national media all said he was.
Dead men have no protection. Three major national newspapers, two local ones and the regional BBC all reported the case as if George Bell had been tried and found guilty. ‘Revered Bishop was paedophile’ they said. ‘Proven Abuse’, they asserted. In fact they had no basis for saying so. The BBC has partly withdrawn some of what it said, though no newspaper yet has. The Church’s statement – on which they based these reports – did not say he was guilty. The Bishop of Durham told the House of Lords some weeks later on the 28th January ‘In fact, if noble Lords read very carefully the statements that have been put out, they will see that there has been no declaration that we are convinced that this (the abuse) took place.’
The Man in Black
It would be hard for anyone to have been sure. ‘Carol’ did not make her charge until 37 years after George Bell’s death, and nearly 45 years after the events she alleged. The things she seemed to know about George Bell, how he dressed, that he had a book-lined study, were known by anyone who had ever seen photographs of him. The one thing she knew that was not commonly known, the existence of a staircase behind the private kitchen in the Bishop’s Palace, leading up to a corridor which led eventually to his study, could have been given to her by the relative who had once worked there. There are serious doubts about the location of the alleged events. Not surprisingly for a lady in her 70s recalling events in her childhood, there were problems of detail. The abuse is supposed to have gone until she was nine, but it is hard to see how a man in his late 60s, or anyone else, could have perched a nine-year-old girl on his lap as Carol says he did. The most fascinating is this: ‘Carol’ was taken by a church-supplied ‘counsellor’ to revisit the scene of the alleged crime.
The Wrong Kitchen?
She explained, in her interview with the Brighton ‘Argus’ ‘The lady who was giving me counselling actually took me to the Bishop’s kitchen. The Cathedral had some sort of pottery exhibition on there and she said “we’ll go, and see how you feel.”
‘Well, I got in there and I said “Can we leave now?”.We had to leave’
The interviewer recorded: ‘Carol’s voice only broke once in the course of a three hour interview, when she recalled how it felt to stand back in that room, at the foot of those stairs. Hoarsely, slowly, she said “It was horrible. You start to feel all jelly inside. It’s not nice; believe me”.
‘Perhaps, having bravely chosen to break the silence to which she was entitled, Carol has helped ensure that she will not have to revisit that Cathedral kitchen- in her mind or in person – ever again’.
There is one difficulty with this account. The mediaeval Palace kitchen (the scene of a recent pottery exhibition, often open to the public, and so presumably the one described in the interview) is a two-storey historic survival from the past. It is not the kitchen in which the relative who supposedly took ‘Carol’ to the Palace) would have worked. This was the private kitchen, in the Bishop’s private quarters. The staircase leading up to the study is from the private kitchen, a wholly different room.
A surprise witness appears
We know this because there was, seemingly unknown to the Church of England authorities, another eyewitness to George Bell’s life and work in the early 1950s, the period of the alleged abuse. Carol has said of those who have defended George Bell’s reputation ‘They weren’t there’.
But Canon Adrian Carey was there. For two years from September 1950, he worked and lived and ate and slept in the private part of the Bishop’s Palace at the time, performing his duties as Bishop’s Chaplain. He guarded the door to the private apartments and was constantly in the company of the Bishop, who worked incessantly (generally under the eyes of his secretary, of his wife and of his chaplain) and would have been highly unlikely to have ceased to do so to lessen the burden of work on a cleaner or a cook, let alone to abuse a child. He can recall all the servants who worked in the palace at that time. He washed dishes in the private kitchen, and helped serve meals. He never during his two years in the job (which coincided with the period of Carol’s alleged abuse) once saw a child in the private apartments, except during the annual Christmas party for the children of the clergy (not the children of the Palace staff).
Canon Carey to the end of his life loved and admired George Bell ‘To me, he was Mr Valiant-for Truth (a heroic figure in John Bunyan’s great story ‘the Pilgrim’s Progress’) And he still is!’, he said to me. He says George Bell’s regard for truth, his fierce Christian purpose and austere morals make it extraordinarily unlikely that he could have done such a cruel and dishonest thing. And his closely-observed daily routine, when he was seldom alone and even more seldom unobserved, made it practically nigh-impossible.
Not some gullible parson
Canon Carey is not to be lightly dismissed. Though he lived to be 94, he remained tough-minded and his memory was astonishing. He could quote at will great chunks of Greek and Latin verse, learned at Eton and King’s College Cambridge in the days of much more rigorous education. Nor is he some unworldly, gullible parson, easily fooled.
Mentioned in Despatches
Before joining the priesthood he served in the wartime Navy, firstly as an ordinary seaman, then as a sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). He was aboard HMS Liverpool when she was torpedoed in the Mediterranean on a Malta convoy, and in the destroyer HMS Onslaught during many perilous voyages to and from North Russia, on the convoys which Winston Churchill described as ‘the worst journey in the world’. He has Russian and British medals for this. In the summer of 1944 he was mentioned in despatches for his part in a skirmish with the Germans off the Channel Islands.
Meeting (and mistrusting) Jimmy Savile
Later, he worked for the BBC religious broadcasting department, where he met and mistrusted Jimmy Savile.
He describes the Church’s treatment of his old friend George Bell as ‘nauseating’, and has taken great trouble and much time to ensure that his rebuttal of these charges should be published. I spent some hours with him and was greatly impressed by his recall and his precision. He was there by day and by night for much of the period of the alleged abuse. And he does not accept the charges.
Yet he was never approached for his version of events by the Church of England, which claims to have conducted ‘a thorough pre-litigation process during which further investigations into the claim took place including the commissioning of expert independent reports.’ It also says ‘None of those reports found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim.’
How odd. Any Englishman always has a reason to doubt any charge. It is a principle of liberty. English law requires all involved in investigating alleged crimes to doubt the accusation. The presumption of innocence demands that no man be convicted of anything until a jury of his peers has heard both sides of the case and is convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty.
How come they never looked?
Surely, that would involve searching for witnesses. Is it possible that Chichester Cathedral has no record, anywhere, of who worked for George Bell as his chaplain in the late 1940s and early 1950s? Is it possible that it was incapable of looking up Crockford’s Clerical Directory, now searchable online, which lists all living clergy, and identifies Adrian Carey as such a chaplain, conveniently providing his address.
A ‘thorough pre-litigation process’ would surely have found Canon Carey. Since he was not found, or asked, can it really be called thorough? What else did it not do, and what else did it not ask? We don’t know, since the whole thing is hidden by a shield of confidentiality which ‘Carol’ herself has not observed all that much. There’s no sign that George Bell’s extensive archive , detailing his many appointments and journeys, was matched against any dates which ‘Carol’ came up with . His biographer, Andrew Chandler, wasn’t asked his opinion, even though he lives in Chichester. A priest involved in handling the 1995 allegation, still very much alive, wasn’t asked about that either.
A nasty shock for the Bishop’s niece
The Sussex police, who said they would have arrested the Bishop had he been alive won’t say if they interviewed anyone apart from ‘Carol’ before reaching this conclusion. Nobody found or warned Barbara Whitley, the Bishop’s 92-year-old niece. She thinks the charges are preposterous, is much distressed by them and officially complained to the police about their part in blackening her uncle’s name. This resulted in their revelation that the Diocese involved them in the matter.
Meanwhile, a Soviet-style process goes on, in which George Bell’s name is removed from schools and other places that were once named after him. The world proceeds as if this is proven, defying the ancient principles of English law. In which case, this not just about the reputation of a great Englishman, forever besmirched and diminished by accusations of an especially filthy and callous crime.
It is about a personal example of selfless goodness, rare in our times, reduced without proof or due process to ashes and dirt.
Who is not vulnerable now?
And it is a threat to every one of us. Who is not vulnerable to an accusation, made after his or her death when no defence is possible? Come to that, as Field Marshal Lord Bramall recently found, it is a threat to the living as police officials, with brains seemingly made of wood, treat even the most honoured person as a suspect criminal on the basis of a single uncorroborated accusation.
One place where the accusations are still treated with proper English scepticism is Oxford, where Christ Church Cathedral (also the chapel of George Bell’s old college) stands. There, in a serene part of the ancient building, there is an unedited, uncensored memorial to the late Bishop. A small altar of black oak, out of which a rough but powerful cross has been carved, stands in front of a slab on which the following rather interesting words are incised, along with George Bell’s name, dates and titles:
‘No nation, no church, no individual is guiltless without repentance, and without forgiveness there can be no regeneration’.
The words are, of course, George Bell’s own, as he contemplated the post-war world. Certainly, nobody is guiltless. But who now most needs to repent, and who to forgive? I said this was a detective story, but most such stories are in fact based on the belief that a trial, and justice, will follow the investigation and the uncovering of the truth by the sleuth.
Not on this occasion. There is no earthly place where this question can be settled. There can be no trial and no final verdict, just a trial in the hearts of those men and women who have long valued the story of George Bell’s life as a rare example of human goodness, and seek to continue to do so. How do you find the defendant? Guilty, or not guilty?
***Since I wrote these words, the Church has commissioned and received a review of its handling of the case by the distinguished lawyer, Lord Carlile of Berriew. It received the report,which I understand from several sources to be severely critical of its behaviour, on the 7th October. It is now the middle of November. Why has it not been published?