Anglican Rough Justice

There has just been an important new development in the story of the
Church of England’s deplorable treatment of the late Bishop George Bell’s memory, about which I wrote in my first blog. Bell was Bishop of Chichester from 1929 until he died in office in 1958, and has been universally acknowledged as a great and holy man. In October last year he was accused of sexually molesting a child over sixty years ago; the Church accepted his guilt to the extent that the current Bishop issued an apology and the complainant was paid off.

A group of Bell’s supporters, the George Bell Group, many of its members eminent (they include Bell’s biographer Dr Andrew Chandler, Lord Dear, Frank Field MP, Lord Lexden, Judge Alan Pardoe QC, the Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford) has been appalled by the Church’s conduct, and has been quietly working on the case. The group has just produced a lengthy review of such facts as have not been kept secret, and has protested powerfully at the injustice of the Church’s procedures and the inadequacy of its investigation of the accusations against Bell.

Copies of the document were handed yesterday, 19th March, to the current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Today it was reported on the national news, and is the subject of a thorough article by Patrick Sawer in the Sunday Telegraph. There will clearly be a lot more publicity as the report becomes more widely disseminated.

To give more than a summary of the story would make for an inordinately long blog, but the essential facts are these.The Bishop, who died in 1958, was in October 2015 accused by an unnamed complainant (even her sex was kept secret until she revealed it herself) of molesting her as a child between 1948 and 1952. She first complained to the then Bishop of Chichester in 1995; to Rowan Williams, then Archbishop of Canterbury in 2012, and again to the current archbishop in 2012. (NB Lord Williams insists that he had no such communication).

The Church, relying on evidence which it has kept secret from all but a very few people, has accepted the “likelihood” of the Bishop’s guilt, using, in the words of various church representatives, the standard of proof appropriate to a civil case. In other words, the Church would not commit itself to being absolutely certain of the facts, though it is difficult to see what more it could have done to damn Bishop Bell,  even if it had been certain.

Sometimes the tentative attitude slips. After the complainant gave an interview to the Brighton Argus the current Bishop of Chichester, followed up: “The presence of strident voices in the public arena which have sought to undermine the survivor’s claims has added in this case to the suffering of the survivor and her family”. “Likelihood” seems to have given way to certainty there.

The complainant has been paid off with an unpublished amount from undisclosed sources, but apparently without a gagging clause, since she has since given interviews. All that has been revealed is that the payoff did not come from diocesan funds. (The amount is now thought to have been £15,000 and there is speculation that an insurance company was the source). 

It seems that neither the cathedral, nor the police, took the trouble to track down anyone who might have known Bishop Bell, but since then two have emerged. Recently his niece wrote to Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury who reacted with horror at the Church’s behaviour. Now the George Bell Group has spoken at length to the Bishop’s chaplain, who, like his niece and a number of former choristers who wrote to The Times, is convinced of his innocence.

Such convictions are of course no more conclusive than is the secret evidence on which the Church has based its presumption of guilt. Nobody who deplores the  Church’s behaviour is asserting that Bell was indubitably innocent. The complaint is about the injustice of the Church’s procedures, the absence of due process and the general atmosphere of hole-in-corner superficiality. But there is also a duty to assess the allegations in the light of whatever else is known. The more startling the allegations, the more necessary to investigate them thoroughly, which is exactly what the Church has not done.

The cathedral, while generally sticking to its careful wording with regard to “likelihood”, and thereby not totally committing itself to asserting the Bishop’s guilt, has even removed the name “Bishop Bell House” from what is now to be called 4 Canon Row.

“Confidentiality laws” prevent publication of any of the evidence against the Bishop, nor of any details of the investigation which led to the Church’s presumption of his guilt. It is even difficult to find out who has actually seen and assessed the evidence. In fact it is impossible, because even that information is, according to the cathedral, protected by the same laws.

A curious circular that came my way was a letter to all the cathedral’s volunteers from the Chancellor, Canon Anthony Care, who gave rather confusing and indefinite guidance to the volunteers as to what they should say about the Bishop. The implication was that they might be wise to say nothing; but if they did say anything they must not fail to mention the allegations.

One oddity about this letter was that the Canon had not himself seen any of the evidence, so was acting on hearsay. Nor, although he referred to confidentiality laws, could he specify which laws he had in mind. And when It was suggested to him that he and his colleagues must be mistaken in talking about a civil case, because of the strict time limitations within which such cases must be brought, he had to say that he had no knowledge of the Bell case being subject to any such limitation.
( I think the Church’s representatives may have confused themselves. They may have jumped, without really noticing it, from saying that they were applying the standard of proof appropriate to a civil case to saying that there actually was a civil case).

Now that a really serious group has devoted itself to producing a reasoned, and reasonable, critique of how this case has been handled it does not any longer look as if the whole affair can be kicked into the long grass of the Goddard enquiry. It will be interesting to see which heads fall.

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