The Church of England has been accused of launching a ‘shameful and foolish’ new attack on one of its most revered bishops, by making public an uncorroborated child sex abuse allegation almost 70 years old.
The Church announced on Wednesday it had referred to the police a second claim of sexual assault made against Bishop George Bell, who died in 1958.
It made the allegation public amid growing pressure on Archbishop Justin Welby to apologise for the Church’s handling of a previous claim against Bishop Bell, which shredded his reputation.
The General Synod is to discuss the Church’s treatment of Bishop Bell with some suggestion that Archbishop Welby should have resigned over his refusal to say sorry.
In a statement, the Church said: “The Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team has received fresh information concerning Bishop George Bell. Sussex Police have been informed and we will work collaboratively with them.”
Bishop Peter Hancock, the Church of England’s lead Safeguarding bishop, said: “Due to the confidential nature of this new information I regret I cannot disclose any further detail until the investigations have been concluded.
The Church refused to give further details such as the date of any alleged wrongdoing nor even whether the complainant is a man or a woman or even still alive. That raises the prospect Bishop Bell is being investigated 60 years after his death on claims made by someone from beyond the grave.
An independent report by Lord Carlile QC into the previous claim – made by a woman known only as Carol – had found the Church had “severely and unnecessarily damaged” Bishop Bell’s reputation. A psychiatric report suggested her claim could have been the result of false memory.
Lord Carlile said he was astonished that the Church had gone public with the new claim against Bishop Bell. Among his recommendations was that people accused of abuse should remain anonymous until the allegations are proven.
Lord Carlile said last night: “I am not privy to the information that is referred to in the church’s press release. But I think it was unwise, unnecessary and foolish to issue a press release in relation to something that remains to be investigated and which was not part of the material placed before me over the period of more than a year in which I carried out my review.
“During that period the review was well known and it was open to anybody to place information before me.”
Professor Andrew Chandler, his biographer and spokesman for the George Bell Group, said: “This is shameful. The issuing of this press release shows the only way the Church can justify itself is at George Bell’s expense.”
A source close to the case said it was “outrageous” that the Church had made the announcement on the eve of a debate held at Church House which is expected to lead to calls for Justin Welby to quit over his handling of the matter. General Synod will also hear calls for Archbishop Welby to apologise when it meets next week.
The new complaint is understood to be at least 70 years old and is uncorroborated.
The source added: “This is outrageous behaviour on the part of the Church.”
The Telegraph understands the Church has known about the case for at least a fortnight before making it public 24 hours before the Church House debate.
One source suggested the Church might be keen to pay damages to the complainant because it will help to justify its contentious decision to pay damages to “Carol” in 2015.
Bishop Bell, who was Bishop of Chichester, was one of the Church’s outstanding clerics of the 20th century, recognised for helping to save the lives of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.
Carol had first gone to the Church with her complaint in 1995 and made her allegations a second time direct to Archbishop Welby in 2013. The psychiatric report suggested it was highly unusual for her to have waited almost 50 years before making her initial complaint. The fresh allegation will raise similar concerns.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has provoked a furious backlash by accusing supporters of a highly respected bishop of refusing to believe a historic child sex abuse allegation.
The Most Reverend Justin Welby has repeatedly declined to apologise for the shredding of the reputation of Bishop George Bell over a single, uncorroborated claim made by a woman dating back more than 60 years.
Archbishop Welby has been under pressure to say sorry following the publication of an independent report which concluded Bishop Bell’s reputation had been wrongly destroyed.
Senior academics had written an open letter to the Telegraph complaining that the archbishop had shamed his office with “irresponsible and dangerous” claims that Bishop Bell may have been a paedophile.
But the Archbishop issued a statement on Monday standing by his refusal to apologise and taking a sideswipe at Bishop Bell’s supporters. In it he likened the case of Bishop Bell, the former Bishop of Chichester, to another bishop Peter Ball, a convicted sex offender.
“I cannot with integrity rescind my statement.” he said, referring to an earlier claim that Bishop Bell had a “significant cloud… over his name” and that he had been accused of “great wickedness”.
Archbishop Welby said on Monday: “As in the case of Peter Ball, and others, it is often suggested that what is being alleged could not have been true, because the person writing knew the alleged abuser and is absolutely certain that it was impossible for them to have done what is alleged.
“As with Peter Ball this sometimes turns out to be untrue, not through their own fault or deceit but because abuse is often kept very secret.
“The experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic.”
Bishop Bell’s supporters reacted with fury and dismay, pointing out the claim against him is uncorroborated and made by one woman – known only as carol – decades after the alleged abuse.
Lord Carlile, who wrote an independent report commissioned by the archbishop, concluded that Bishop bell’s reputation was “wrongly and unnecessarily damaged by the Church”. The Church had paid Carol £16,800 damages and issued an apology in 2015.
Richard Symonds, of the Bell Society, said the archbishop should consider resigning, adding: “His stance is unforgivable.”
Martin Sewell, a retired child protection lawyer and a member of the general synod who will demand an apology when it meets next month, said: “This makes me extraordinarily angry. This statement makes your heart sink.”
A well-placed source inside the Church said: “There is widespread belief that he [Welby] has not shown an appropriate Christian approach in this case. There is a head of steam in the Church of England that could end up in his resignation over this.”
Bishop Bell, who died aged 75 in 1958, was one of the towering figure of the Church of England in the 20th century and was revered for his role in rescuing Jews from Nazi Germany before the war.
The allegation was first made by ‘Carol’ in 1995 some 38 years after his death and brought to Archbishop Welby’s attention in 2013.
Professor Tony Maden, a psychiatrist who examined her, said the “delays in reporting in this case are exceptional” and added that “memory is not reliable over such long periods of time”. He said “false memory” could not be ruled out as an explanation for her claim in the absence of any corroboration.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has been criticised for refusing to clear the bishop besmirched by the Church of England and saying instead that a “significant cloud” hangs over him.
A damning report published today by Lord Carlile of Berriew found that the reputation of Bishop George Bell, who was posthumously accused of sexually abusing a child, was “wrongfully and unnecessarily damaged” by the Church, who publicly named him in an apology made in 2015.
But in a statement following the report, Justin Welby said Bell was “accused of great wickedness” and apologises only “for the failures of the process”.
“We have to differ from Lord Carlile’s point that ‘where as in this case the settlement is without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision’.
“The C of E is committed to transparency and therefore we would take a different approach,” he adds.
Lord Carlile said the Archbishop’s comments were “very disappointing”.
“The implication of what he said is everybody accused should have their name made public, and that is just not acceptable,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
Lord Carlile earlier said that he judged the prospect of a successful criminal prosecution, had the bishop been alive, as “low”.
Bell’s supporters also criticised the Archbishop’s response.
Dr Ruth Hildebrandt Grayson, the daughter of Bishop Bell’s friend Franz Hildebrandt, said Bishop Bell’s family deserved a personal apology from the Archbishop and the Bishop of Chichester.
“The Church can’t have its cake and eat it. Either he is innocent, in which case they must apologise, or he is guilty, which they can’t prove, and the report makes clear that they have not proved,” she told this newspaper.
Professor Andrew Chandler, Bell’s biographer, said the Archbishop’s statement was “wrong” and “illogical”.
“It fails a basic test of rational justice,”he said. “It lacks an understanding of all kinds of dimensions which require compassion, not least in Chichester, where people feel deeply upset by this.”
The review found that the Church was wrong to publicly name Bell, who was accused by a woman known as Carol of sexually abusing her when she was a young child.
It also failed to thoroughly investigate the allegations, failed to find and inform Bell’s surviving family members of the investigation, and did not properly consider the impact on the bishop’s reputation when deciding what to do, Lord Carlile said.
The alleged abuse took place more than 60 years ago but the allegations were first made to the Church in 1995.
It paid compensation of £16,800 and £15,000 legal costs to “Carol” in 2015.
Before the allegations were made public Bishop Bell was a highly respected theologian who was widely regarded as a hero for his work helping victims of Nazi persecution.
The report includes the findings of psychiatrist Professor Anthony Maden, which were given to Church officials in 2015, several months before the public apology was made.
He found that there were “enormous problems” because of the time elapsed, and said the “possibility of false memories in this case cannot be excluded”.
The alleged victim had been abused by her first husband, and Maden added that her unhappy early life meant there was “an obvious temptation to seek to (consciously or unconsciously) allocate the blame for that unhappiness to the actions of others in the distant past”.
In a statement Peter Hancock, the Church’s lead safeguarding bishop, said: “We recognise that Carol has suffered pain, as have surviving relatives of Bishop Bell. We are sorry that the Church has added to that pain through its handling of this case.”