Anglican Church "Rushed to Judgment" in George Bell Child Abuse Case
By Harriet Sherwood
December 15, 2017
|George Bell was the bishop of Chichester from 1929 until his death in 1958. Photograph: PA|
The Church of England has been criticised for a “rush to judgment” in its handling of allegations of sexual abuse against one its most revered figures of the 20th century in a highly damaging independent inquiry.
The report by Lord Carlile, released on Friday, said that although the church acted in good faith, its processes were deficient and it failed to give proper consideration to the rights of the accused.
The findings, which the church has made public two months after receiving them, concerned claims made against George Bell, the former bishop of Chichester, who died in 1958. A woman now in her 70s alleged that Bell had abused her in the bishop’s palace over a period of four years, starting when she was five years old.
In 2015, the church issued a formal public apology and paid ?16,800 to the woman, known as Carol. Its statement triggered furious protests among Bell’s supporters, who said his reputation had been trashed, the evidence against him was thin and that he could not defend himself from beyond the grave.
The church commissioned Carlile last year to review its processes in the case. Speaking at a press conference on Friday, he said Bell had been “hung out to dry” and there were “many errors” in the church process. There were preconceptions about the outcome of the process and “therefore obvious lines of inquiry were not followed”.
The case bore “some of the hallmarks of the unacceptable way accusations against Lord Bramall and the late Lord Brittan were dealt with”, he added.
His report concluded that the “core group” established by the church to consider the claims “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides”.
“The church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case.
“In other words, there was a rush to judgment: the church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the bishop. Such rights should not be treated as having been extinguished on death.”
He added: “In my view, the church concluded that the needs of a living complainant who, if truthful, was a victim of very serious criminal offences were of considerably more importance than the damage done by a possibly false allegation to a person who was no longer alive.”
Carlile said the purpose of his review was not to determine the truthfulness of Carol’s claims, nor Bell’s guilt or innocence. Rather his remit was to examine the church’s processes and determine whether it was right to make a public statement of apology and pay damages.
The church was “motivated by a desire to do what it perceived to be the right thing by the complainant” and “its actions were informed by history in which the church has been, at best, slow to acknowledge abuse by its clergy and, at worst, believed to have turned a blind eye”, he said.
But, he went on, “even when the alleged perpetrators have died, there should be methodical and sufficient investigations into accusations levelled against them”.
In this case, “the truth of what Carol was saying was implicitly accepted without serious investigation or inquiry. I have concluded this was an inappropriate and impermissible approach.”
His report was seen as vindication by high-profile figures who have fought to salvage Bell’s reputation for the past two years.
The George Bell Group welcomed the review’s findings. Carlile’s “devastating criticism of the church’s process shows that Archbishop [Justin] Welby was wrong in 2016 when he described the investigation as ‘very thorough’ and the finding of abuse as clearly correct on the balance of probabilities”, it said. The report “thoroughly vindicated the reputation of a man revered for his integrity across the Christian church”.
The journalist Peter Hitchens, who has vigorously campaigned on Bell’s behalf, said the church had “convicted Bishop Bell in a kangaroo court of chaotic incompetence” and demanded it withdraw its 2015 statement.
Responding to the report on behalf of the church, Peter Hancock, its lead safeguarding bishop, said: “It is clear from the report … that our processes were deficient in a number of respects, in particular the process for seeking to establish what may have happened. For that we apologise. Lessons can and have been learned about how we could have managed the process better.”
He added: “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.”
In a statement notable for its lack of apology to Bell’s family, Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, said Bell was “one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century”.
Saying a “significant cloud is left over his name”, Welby added: “No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget good.”
Martin Warner, the bishop of Chichester, in whose name the 2015 statement was issued, apologised for the church’s failures. He said: “The good deeds that Bishop George Bell did were recognised internationally. They will stand the test of time. In every other respect, we have all been diminished by the case that Lord Carlile has reviewed.”
Among Carlile’s recommendations is that alleged perpetrators, living or dead, should not be identified publicly without adverse finding of facts or a decision that identification is in the public interest.
If a settlement is made without admission of liability, as in the Bell case, there should be a confidentiality provision.
In response, Hancock said that while the church accepted the main thrust of his recommendations, “respectfully, we differ from [the] judgment” on confidentiality clauses. “The church is committed to transparency. We would look at each case on its merits but generally would seek to avoid confidentiality clauses.”