Church rejects key finding in George Bell review

Bishop George Bell, 1883-1958

THE CHURCH of England has apologised for its handling of the allegations of abuse by Bishop George Bell, who died in 1958, but resisted a key recommendation in the review it requested.

The leading barrister and former MP Lord Carlile of Berriew was asked by the Diocese of Chichester to review its handling of the accusation by ‘Carol’.

Although he accepted that the diocese had acted in ‘good faith’, one of his key recommendations was that there should be a confidentiality provision, at least where cases are settled without admission of liability, as in this case.

Lord Carlile was not asked to decide on the veracity of the claims, which ‘Carol’ asserted happened when she was a child. These events date back to the 1940s and 1950s. The terms of his review were solely on how the Church handled these.

But on this point he was damning. While acknowledging that the Church’s actions were informed by history, in which the Church has been seen to be slow to acknowledge abuse by its clergy, or even turning a blind eye, he concluded: “The process followed by the Church in this case was deficient in a number of respects.”

Central to this was his opinion that the Church of England failed to institute or follow a procedure that respected the rights of both sides.

When the diocese eventually made inquiries following ‘Carol’s’ accusation, they were deemed to be credible as these inquiries resulted in a confirmation of ‘basic underlying facts’.

‘Carol’ first made the allegations in 1995 in a letter to the then diocesan bishop, Eric Kemp. However, little was done and it was when the Jimmy Savile allegations broke in 2012 that she wrote to the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. That year Bishop Peter Ball was arrested for non-recent sexual offences but ‘Carol’ did not contact the Palace again until the following year.

Lord Carlile concluded that the Church’s response over these years, from Chichester and from Lambeth Palace, was ‘inadequate’.

However, it was in 2014, when the Church and Diocese concluded that a civil claim was likely, a claim that would not be covered by insurance, that the Diocese decided to settle her claim.

Nevertheless, questions have been raised about the damage to Bishop Bell’s reputation, which bishops and Archbishops have continued to praise, although his reputation has been fatally wounded.

The Diocese of Chichester has removed his name from buildings there, but Lord Carlile said the procedures followed by the Church were not ‘fair and equitable’ both to ‘Carol’ and the deceased bishop.

He said that the investigation was ‘very weak’ and it failed to find important, credible evidential material. In contrast, the announcement of his review produced this ‘with ease’.

As a result, he commented: “The reputation of Bishop Bell was wrongly and unnecessarily damaged severely by public statements by the Church, which should not have been made.”

But his key recommendation, that of confidentiality, has been rejected by the Church. Lord Carlile said he ‘regretted’ this decision.

“The intention was to avoid illegitimate and unfair publicity against those whose liability of sexual abuse has not been proved.

“The difference between myself and the Church on this issue seems narrow, in that I suggest that the name of the alleged perpetrator should be kept confidential in all cases in which responsibility for alleged abuse has not been proved, but the Church wishes to deal with such matters on a case by case basis.”

The current Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Rev Martin Warner, said: “The emotive principle of innocent until proven guilty is a standard by which our actions are judged and we have to ensure as best we can that justice is seen to be done.

“Irrespective of whether she is technically a complainant, survivor, or victim, ‘Carol’ emerges from this report as a person of dignity and integrity. It is essential that her right to privacy continues to be fully respected.”

He apologised for the failures in the work of the Core Group who investigated the claims ‘and its inadequate attention to the rights of those who are dead.’

Bishop Peter Hancock, who the Church’s lead bishop on safeguarding, added: “Lord Carlile states that ‘where as in this case the settlement is without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision’ but respectfully, we differ from that judgement. The Church is committed to transparency. We would look at each case on its merits but generally would seek to avoid confidentiality clauses.

“It is clear from the report, however, 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 learnt about how we could have managed the process better.”

While both bishops apologised for the handling of the case the Archbishop of Canterbury concentrated on the Church’s commitment to transparency. The Most Rev Justin Welby said: “Bishop George Bell is one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century. The decision to publish his name was taken with immense reluctance, and all involved recognised the deep tragedy involved.

“However we have to differ from Lord Carlile’s [confidentiality] point. The Church of England is committed to transparency and therefore we would take a different approach.”

But he went on: “The complaint about Bishop Bell does not diminish the importance of his great achievement. We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name. Let us therefore remember his defence of Jewish victims of persecution, his moral stand against indiscriminate bombing, his personal risks in the cause of supporting the anti-Hitler resistance, and his long service in the Diocese of Chichester.

“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 the good.”

Lord Carlile commented that the Archbishop’s statement had been “less than adroit”.

The Bishop of Chichester avoided questions about the rehabilitation of Bishop Bell’s reputation. His name has been removed from a diocesan building, but Dr Warner said this was a matter for the Dean and Chapter of Chichester Cathedral.