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C of E says sorry for its response to child abuse allegations against Bishop George Bell

Posted on: December 15, 2017 1:50 PM
Bishop George Bell, photographed in the 1910s
Photo Credit: Dorothy Hickling / Public Domain

An independent review has been carried out into the way the Church of England handled allegations that the former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, sexually abused a young girl in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In October 2015, the Church of England issued a statement in which it announced that the complainant had received compensation and an apology. The statement also said that Sussex Police had confirmed “that the information obtained from their enquiries would have justified, had he still been alive, Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview, on suspicion of serious sexual offences.” The Church asked senior human rights lawyer Lord Carlile to undertake a review of their handling of the case, after supporters of Bishop Bell accused it of unfairly deciding Bell’s guilt.

In 1914, while in his early 30s, George Bell was appointed Chaplain to the then-Archbishop of Canterbury; becoming Dean of Canterbury around 10 years later. He was an acknowledged theologian with important international Christian connections. Within five years he was appointed Bishop of Chichester, a post he held for almost 30 years. He died on 3 October 1958, shortly after his retirement.

The complainant, known by the pseudonym Carol because her identity is legally protected, first contacted the Church of England to complain about Bishop Bell in 1995. The C of E acknowledges that her complaint was not handled appropriately at that time. She made a fresh complaint in 2013, leading to the settlement and statement which was the subject of Lord Carlile’s review. Carol alleges that she was abused by Bishop Bell over a period of time when she lived near the cathedral in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The abuse stopped when her family moved away from the area around 1951, when she was aged eight or nine.

Lord Carlile said that her allegations, “if true, amount to serious and horrifying criminal offences committed against a defenceless child. They would be the most serious breach of trust imaginable. However, the fact that they are serious does not ipso facto mean that they are also true.”

In his review, Lord Carlile does not attempt to determine “the truthfulness of Carol, nor the guilt or innocence of Bishop Bell” as that did not form part of his terms of reference. Instead, his task had been “to examine the procedures followed by the Church of England in its various parts, the way in which it obtained and assessed evidence in this case, and whether it was right to make a public statement of apology and pay damages.”

He found that, the Church of England had “acted throughout in good faith” and “was motivated by a desire to do what it perceived to be the right thing by the complainant.”

He said: “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. I have concluded that the process followed by the Church in this case was deficient in a number of respects. The most significant was that the Core Group which it established failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides.

“It is axiomatic that, in appropriate cases, the Church should be ready to acknowledge sexual abuse committed by the clergy. However, that does not mean that the reputations of the dead are without value.”

Lord Carlile made a number of recommendations, including that Core Groups set up to deal with cases should have within its membership “someone assigned to . . . represent the interests of the accused person and his or her descendants.”

He said that “alleged perpetrators, living or dead, should not be identified publicly unless or until the Core Group has (a) made adverse findings of fact, and (b) it has also been decided that making the identity public is required in the public interest.”

He said that in cases which are settled with admission of liability, “there should be a presumption that the perpetrator’s name will be published together with a description of the conduct concerned (unless the complainant objects on reasonable grounds).” But added that “where as in this case the settlement is without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision: there should be a presumption that the name of the alleged perpetrator should not be published, unless the alleged perpetrator agrees that it should be, or the circumstances are held to be wholly exceptional.”

The C of E has welcomed the report, but rejected the recommendation that settlements should be subject to confidentiality agreements.

“We have to differ from Lord Carlile’s point that ‘where as in this case the settlement is without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision”, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said. “The C of E is committed to transparency and therefore we would take a different approach.

“Lord Carlile . . . does make significant comments on our processes, and we accept that improvement is necessary, in all cases including those where the person complained about is dead. We are utterly committed to seeking to ensure just outcomes for all. We apologise for the failures of the process.”

The current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, described Lord Carlile’s Review as “a demonstration of the Church of England’s commitment to equality of justice and transparency in our safeguarding practice.”

He said: “We welcome Lord Carlile’s assessment of our processes, and apologise for failures in the work of the Core Group of national and diocesan officers and its inadequate attention to the rights of those who are dead. We also accept the Report’s recognition that we acted in good faith, and improvements to Core Group protocols are already in place. Further work on them is in hand.

“The Report demands further consideration of the complexities of this case, such as what boundaries can be set to the principle of transparency. Lord Carlile rightly draws our attention to public perception. 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.”

And the Bishop of Bath and Wells, Peter Hancock, the C of E’s lead bishop for safeguarding, said that the church accepts “the main thrust” of Lord Carlile’s recommendations.

“In responding to the report, we first want to acknowledge and publicly apologise again for the Church’s lamentable failure, as noted by Lord Carlile, to handle the case properly in 1995.

“At the heart of this case was a judgement, on the balance of probabilities, as to whether, in the event that her claim for compensation reached trial, a court would have concluded that Carol was abused by Bishop Bell. The Church decided to compensate Carol, to apologise and to be open about the case.

“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.”

NPG-Howard -Coster -CC3_Bp -George -Bell

Bishop George Bell, photographed in 1936.
Photo: Howard Coster
© National Portrait Gallery. Used with permission.

Bishop Bell gave strong support to Christians and Jews in Germany in the 1930s, and contributed to the work and survival of noted priests. He helped to expose Nazi atrocities and played a key part in the Kindertransport – the process of evacuating some 10,000 Jewish children to safety in the UK in the months before the Second World War. Some of the children were housed and educated in the Bishop’s Palace.

He described the Allied bombing of German cities as “barbarian”, disproportionate and a crime against humanity. It is said that those strongly-held views blocked his translation to the See of Canterbury during vacancies in 1942 and 1945. His reputation continued to soar after his death. A number of institutions and bodies were named after him; and he was given a “Name Day” by the Church – an annual commemoration.

The report says that no allegations of sexual or other impropriety were made against him during his lifetime. Carol’s first allegation, in 1995, came 37 years after his death. And, “despite the considerable publicity Carol’s case has received, no one else has come forward to make allegations against Bishop Bell,” Lord Carlile said.

“The Church has always affirmed and treasured Bishop Bell’s principled stand in the Second World War and his contribution to peace remains extraordinary,” Bishop Peter Hancock said. “At same time, we have a duty and commitment to listen to those reporting abuse, to guard their confidentiality, and to protect their interests.

“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.”

Archbishop Justin Welby said that the complaint about Bishop Bell “does not diminish the importance of his great achievement.”

He said: “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. Whatever is thought about the accusations, the whole person and whole life should be kept in mind.”

  • Click here to read the full report by Lord Carlile.

This article was corrected on 15 December to correct an erroneous name it its headline.