Photo Credit: Dorothy Hickling / Public Domain
An independent inquiry carried out by a senior ecclesiastical lawyer has ruled that fresh allegations against the late Bishop George Bell are “unfounded”. Bishop Bell, the former Bishop of Chichester, was described today by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby as a “highly esteemed bishop who died over 60 years ago”. Archbishop Justin apologised for the way the Church handled allegations against Bishop Bell, which were first made public in October 2015.
On 22 October 2015, the C of E issued a surprise statement announcing that it had reached a settlement in a civil claim bought by a complainant known as “Carol”. The complainant had alleged that she had been abused by Bell when she was a girl. The announcement caused controversy and many supporters of Bishop Bell said that the Church had been too quick to condemn a revered man who, because he had died decades earlier, could not defend himself.
In December 2017, an independent review carried out by the senior lawyer and politician Lord Carlile criticised the Church’s handling of the allegation. He made a number of recommendations which, apart from one, the Church accepted. The one it declined to adopt was the recommendation that secrecy should surround settlements in cases where the accused has died and was unable to offer a defence.
The following month, the C of E announced that fresh information had been received following the publication of the Carlile Review, and that a core group has been formed to look into them.January 2019: Decision on fresh information is published
In April 2018, Sussex Police announced that they had carried out “a proportionate investigation” and was not talking matters further. The C of E appointed former police Detective Superintendent Ray Galloway to carry out an investigation and the Bishop of Chichester appointed Timothy Briden QC, Vicar General of the Province of Canterbury, to conduct a review.
In a detailed report released today (Thursday), Mr Briden concludes that the fresh allegations are “unfounded”.
“The Church’s dilemma has been to weigh up the reputation of a highly esteemed bishop who died over 60 years ago alongside a serious allegation”, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in a statement issued response to the inquiry’s findings. “We did not manage our response to the original allegation with the consistency, clarity or accountability that meets the high standards rightly demanded of us. I recognise the hurt that has been done as a consequence.
“This was especially painful for Bishop Bell’s surviving relatives, colleagues and supporters, and to the vast number of people who looked up to him as a remarkable role model, not only in the Diocese of Chichester but across the United Kingdom and globally. I apologise profoundly and unconditionally for the hurt caused to these people by the failures in parts of the process and take responsibility for this failure.
“However, it is still the case that there is a woman who came forward with a serious allegation relating to an historic case of abuse and this cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. We need to care for her and listen to her voice.”
He continued: “I want to make it very clear that Bishop George Bell is one of the most important figures in the history of the Church of England in the 20th century and his legacy is undoubted and must be upheld. His prophetic work for peace and his relationship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer are only two of the many ways in which his legacy is of great significance to us in the Church and we must go on learning from what he has given to us. I hope that ways will be found to underline his legacy and share the learning from his life with future generations.”
In a separate statement, the current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said: “we have learned that the boundaries of doubt and certainty have to be stated with great care, that the dead and those who are related to them have a right to be represented, and that there must be a balanced assessment of the extent to which it would be in the public interest to announce the details of any allegation. . .
“We recognise the hurt that has been done to all who have been directly involved, including the family of George Bell and those who continue to respect his achievements, as a result of the areas where we have fallen short. We apologise profoundly and sincerely for our shortcomings in this regard. The responsibility for this is a shared one, as are the lessons learnt from it.”
He continued: “We have all been diminished by this case. The legitimate quest for certainty has been defeated by the nature of the case and the passage of time. Bishop Bell cannot be proven guilty, nor can it be safely claimed that the original complainant has been discredited. There is an uncertainty which cannot be resolved.
“We ask those who hold opposing views on this matter to recognise the strength of each other’s commitment to justice and compassion. Moreover, we continue to believe that the good things that George Bell did in his life will stand the test of time. His prophetic work for peace and his relationship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer are only two of the many ways in which his legacy will go on being of great significance to us in the Church and we hope and pray we can go on learning from what he has given to us.”
The inquiry by Timothy Briden did not re-open the investigation into claims by the first complainant, Carol, as that was outside the terms of reference. It concentrated instead on new allegations that arose following publicity surrounding the first case.