The Church of England media statement about Bishop George Bell

by
13 November 2015

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From His Honour Alan Pardoe QC

Sir, — I refer to the “Statement on the Rt. Rev. George Bell (1883-1958)” issued on 22 October by the Media Centre of the Church of England.

It appears to me to be thoroughly slipshod and muddled in its wording, and appallingly unfair to the reputation of George Bell, who was Bishop of Chichester for 30 years from 1929 until his death in 1958. Before the Second World War, he was the most important ally internationally of the German Confessing Church. Before and during the war, he helped many displaced persons and refugees from Nazism.

Many, including Rowan Williams, have thought he would have made a worthy successor to William Temple as Archbishop in 1944. He was, in short, an immensely courageous, if very controversial, bishop, and a tremendous figure in the Church, and one whose posthumous reputation has stood very high. He died in 1958, and lies in his cathedral in Chichester.

We are informed in the Media Centre’s statement that “The allegations against Bell date from the late 1940s and 50s and concern allegations of sexual offences against an individual who was at the time a young child.” As the Media Centre’s statement does not spell out, in 1995, when these complaints were first made, Bishop George Bell had been dead for nearly 40 years.

The Media Centre’s statement was made in respect of the settlement of a civil claim made by the complainant. We are not told in terms against whom it was made: either the Church of England or the diocese of Chichester. In defending this claim, the Church and the diocese must surely have been aware that it held in its hands the honour of Bishop Bell and of the Church.

From the Media Centre’s statement, the claim appears to have contained a claim in respect of the Church’s allegedly unsatisfactory investigation when the complaint was first made in 1995. That appears to be endorsed by the terms of the apology made by the present Bishop of Chichester quoted by the Media Centre.

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The Media Centre’s statement signally fails to make clear whether the present Bishop of Chichester in his apology was also acknowledging Bell’s alleged guilt of sexual abuse of a child. This is astonishing. If the present Bishop was not acknowledging that, but only that the investigation in 1995 was inadequate, that should have been spelt out loud and clear. If he was accepting Bell’s guilt of these horrific matters, that should have been spelt out, and the reasons for so shocking a conclusion plainly stated.

Instead, the Media Centre’s statement deals with this obliquely by going on to quote at length a statement made by the solicitor for the complainant (described in the Media Centre’s statement as “the survivor”). The solicitor’s statement first states that there was “a failure to respond properly” to the complaint in 1995 and that such failure was “very damaging”.

The solicitor’s statement goes on immediately to state that such failure when “combined with the abuse that was suffered has had a profound effect on my client’s life”. Does the quotation of this statement constitute an admission by the Church that in the 1940s or 1950s one of its senior bishops committed horrible offences against a child? If so, why is it made in so oblique a fashion? If not, why is this part of the solicitor’s statement quoted in the Media Centre’s statement?

There is, or ought to be, a chasm between the two accusations that appear to have arisen in this matter:

1. that the investigation in 1995 of the complaint first made then was inadequate; and

2. that George Bell in the 1940s and ’50s, when Bishop of Chichester, committed sexual abuse of a young child.

It is clear that the Church has accepted the first of these and has apologised and paid compensation. On the second and hugely serious accusation, the Church’s Media Centre’s statement is, to put the kindest view of it, appallingly muddled when on so serious a matter it should have been crystal-clear.

As to the evidence on either of these accusations, the Media Centre states only that in the pre-litigation process in respect of the civil claim there was further investigation in which expert independent reports were obtained and that “none of these reports found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim.” These opinions as to the veracity of the complainant are most unlikely to have been admissible in any trial of this claim.

The Media Centre’s statement concludes by stating a police opinion in 2013 that if Bishop Bell had been alive the complainant’s statement would have justified an arrest of the Bishop “on suspicion of serious sexual offences followed by his release on bail, further enquiries and the subsequent submission of a police report to the CPS” (Crown Prosecution Service).

It would have been helpful if the Media Centre’s statement had gone on to state that it would have been for the CPS to decide whether to mount any charge and, if so, what charge, and that there would then have been a trial of such charge before a jury. The recent example of the police treatment of the late Lord Brittan is surely relevant here.

It is understandable that the Church has very properly now fully investigated this matter and that it has apologised for the inadequacy of its investigation in 1995 and has paid compensation for that failure. It is incomprehensible why the Church in its Media Centre’s statement has almost casually lent its authority to the utter destruction of the reputation of George Bell, arguably one of the greatest bishops of the Church of England.

ALAN PARDOE
50 Northumberland Place
London W2 5AS

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