It is to the great credit of the Church of England that it has decided to publish in full the review by Lord Carlile into its procedures dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop George Bell. The Church cannot be accused of lack of transparency here! At the same time, the public reactions of the church leadership to the review will merit scrutiny. So far, the statements published today (15 December) come under the category of recognising that while “acting in good faith”, they should have done better and that lessons will be learnt. That is verging on blandness. In fact Lord Carlile’s review contains a damning catalogue of flawed practices and misjudgements which should be specifically addressed in the interests of integrity.
On Good Friday 2016, regarding the Bell case the archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby stated on BBC Radio Kent: “On the balance of probability, at this distance, it seemed clear to us after very thorough investigation that that was correct and so we paid compensation and gave a profound and deeply felt apology.” It is now patently clear from Lord Carlile’s report that, as the George Bell Group has always maintained, there was no “very thorough investigation” at all. This should now be clearly acknowledged by the church leadership.
Lord Carlile emphasises that it was not in his brief make a judgment on the truth or otherwise of the allegations against George Bell, but it is quite clear from his review that on several counts Bell’s name has suffered a grave miscarriage of justice. Child sexual abuse is a deeply serious matter, and one can only applaud the much more rigorous attention that safeguarding is now receiving in church circles. But no less important is the need to search for the truth in any such case, however difficult it may prove to be. Those of us who have been concerned for the reputation of George Bell have not been making any special pleading on his behalf: one would hope that, in the best traditions of British justice, all accused and all claimants will be treated fairly regardless of who they are. But in Bell’s case it is sadly ironic that one who fought so tirelessly for victims of injustice while he was alive, should himself have been denied justice after his death.
Much has been made of the harm this case has brought to the Church of England. But George Bell was not just an outstanding Anglican. He is acknowledged and admired worldwide and in all Christian traditions as one of the greatest figures in the modern ecumenical movement. There are many beyond these shores and beyond the Anglican Communion who will welcome Lord Carlile’s findings, and who will now want to share in the responsibility of continuing to honour him, learn from him and to sing with as great a vigour as ever his hymn “Christ is the King! O friends rejoice”.
GEORGE BELL GROUP STATEMENT ON LORD CARLILE’S REVIEW, 15 DECEMBER 2017
The George Bell Group, together with admirers of the Bishop worldwide, heartily welcomes Lord Carlile’s independent review of the process which led to the statement by the Church in October 2015 painting Bell as a paedophile. Lord Carlile deserves congratulations for producing such a comprehensive and authoritative report.
In his response to the report Archbishop Welby has chosen to emphasise that Lord Carlile has not sought to say whether George Bell was in fact responsible for the alleged assaults. That is not surprising, it was no part of Lord Carlile’s terms of reference from the Church to say whether Bell was innocent or not. But his devastating criticism of the Church’s process shows that Archbishop 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. A close reading of the detail of Lord Carlile’s report can only lead to the conclusion that he has thoroughly vindicated the reputation of man revered for his integrity across the Christian Church.
It is no wonder that the Church’s investigation has been compared by Lord Carlile tothe discredited police investigation of Lords Brittan and Bramall. The Safeguarding Group appear to have gone about their work looking for reason to doubt the veracity of the complainant. A proper investigation would have looked to see whether they could find independent corroboration of the complaint. That Bishop Bell had been dead for over half a century did not justify depriving him of the presumption of innocence or of due process. As Sir Richard Henriques pointed out in his report for the Metropolitan Police on historic sex offence investigations, the policy of believing victims shifts the burden of proof onto the suspect and ‘has and will generate miscarriages of justice on a considerable scale’.
The misconceived approach of the Safeguarding Group, described by Lord Carlile as neither fair nor equitable, was aggravated by the failure of their investigation to reveal easily discoverable evidence:
· They failed to speak to Bell’s domestic chaplain during two of the four relevant years, who lived with the Bells in the Bishop’s Palace. He could have explained to them precisely why the complainant’s account did not add up;
· Nor did they speak to Bell’s biographer, the historian Professor Andrew Chandler, who has studied the layout of the Bishop’s Palace at the relevant time;
· They did not interview former choristers of Chichester Cathedral who might be thought to have been aware if Bell had been a paedophile. Eleven of them wrote to the Times complaining that the Bishop had been smeared to suit a public relations need.
Lord Carlile’s report has now left the Church with many searching questions, including how best to remedy the many defects in the current Practice Guidance so as to ensure that such an injustice can never recur. But most important of all, the time has now come for the Church of England to redress, without hesitation or qualification, the immense damage done to the fine reputation of a man who served it for so long and with such courage and devotion. Those institutions which summarily removed Bell’s name from their titles should now fully restore it.
Archbishop Welby, who has said in his response to Lord Carlile that he realises that ‘a significant cloud’ is left over Bell’s name, should join with the Bishop of Chichester in removing that cloud. The Church deprived the Bishop of due process, they should not deprive him of the presumption of innocence. There is not just no fire, there is no smoke. We share Lord Carlile’s disappointment that the Church has rejected the protection of innocence as a clear and general principle.
As Bishop Bell said in a broadcast to the German people in December 1945, now engraved in the Bell Chapel at Christ Church in Oxford: ‘Without repentance and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.’