Well let’s get it out of the way. All child abuse is wrong and horrible. All claims of child abuse should be investigated properly and the offenders, if found to be guilty in a court of law, should be flung into prison for a very, very long time.
So now we’ve done the formalities. There is much discontent with the Church of England’s behaviour over the way it has handled abuse allegations against one of its greatest sons, George Bell – a great ecumenist, liturgist, wartime leader and friend to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church.
It was announced last week that a legal civil claim has been settled by the Diocese of Chichester regarding sexual abuse claims against Bishop Bell. The allegation was first made in 1995 and was not reported to the police. The case was reopened in 2013 and now an unknown sum of money has been handed over.
But why on earth is the Church of England traducing the reputation of one of its greatest wartime spiritual leaders on the basis of recent allegations about the events of 65 years ago? We talk about cases of historic abuse in reference to Jimmy Savile crimes during the 60s, 70s and 80s, but this case is truly prehistoric.
Bishop Bell died in 1958 and the crimes of abuse he is alleged to have committed against a young child date from the late 40s and early 50s when the Bishop himself was in his late 60s and early 70s.
He is effectively being tried and convicted by the Church of England with little thought for proper justice and due process.
“We are all diminished by what we are being told,” said the modern Bishop of Chichester. He goes on to explain: “Our starting point is response to the survivor. We remain committed to listening to all allegations of abuse with an open mind. In this case, the scrutiny of the allegation has been thorough, objective and undertaken by people who command the respect of all parties.
“We face with shame a story of abuse of a child; we also know that the burden of not being heard has made the experience so much worse. We apologise for the failures of the past.”
And here much of the problem lies. The starting point must be justice, not just a concern for the ‘survivor’, because that is to jump to conclusions. The Bishop, and the independent assessors, have missed out a vital part of the process of justice that is that the accused is presumed innocent and has the right to defend themselves.
The indecent haste to describe Bishop George Bell as an abuser is a failure of nerve on the part of the Church of England. The diocese of Chichester may have failed to respond properly when the allegation of abuse was first reported in 1995, and although the accuser was offered pastoral support, this should not lead to any sort of admission of guilt on behalf of George Bell.
There is hysteria and a lynch-mob mentality surrounding some of the cases of historic abuse. We have seen this in the false allegations of murder, rape and ritual abuse made against politicians such as Ted Heath, Leon Brittan and Harvey Proctor. The Church is now as much a part of this overreaction as any other part of society.
Of course there are historic cases of abuse, and there was a long period of time when child protection procedures were unknown and reports of abuse were dealt with poorly. There were cover-ups and failures to believe the victims of abuse. But we’ve had at least two decades of improving things, legislating and regulating to make sure that protections are better, and that children are properly listened to and dealt with.
These improvements should have lessened the sense of hysteria and panic surrounding these cases. Abusers such as Jimmy Savile could never have thrived in today’s climate of safeguarding. Yet the case of George Bell proves that we are living in a state of perpetual and rising fears over allegations of child abuse and we in the Church of England have no answers to these fears. In fact, we are complicit in the lynch mob.
Remember the ritual abuse controversy of the 1980s and 1990s in which social workers and police were convinced that Satanists were involved in the mass killing and abuse of children. And there was no evidence at all in the end.
Remember also the mob that surrounded the home of a paediatrician. The witch-hunt is back and no prominent person is safe from being named – alive or dead. And if named their reputation is trashed.
This is the very opposite of the Christian faith that decries fear and says ‘judge not, lest ye be judged’.
George Bell, with his reputation for bravery, and his leadership in bringing the victims of Nazism to safety, opposing carpet-bombing of German cities and supporting the martyrs of the Confessing Church, is the type of church leader who would have confronted this lynch mob with calm courage.
There may be a stain on his reputation for a short time but his memory will be cherished again in future especially when we look back at this time of witch-hunting with a proper sense of perspective.