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Church settles abuse claim over George Bell

22 October 2015

Howard Coster

Bishop George Bell in 1953

Bishop George Bell in 1953

ALLEGATIONS of sexual abuse by a former Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd George Bell, have resulted in compensation and a formal apology from the current Bishop, Dr Martin Warner, 20 years after the complaint was first made.

A statement issued by Church House on Thursday confirmed  “a legal civil claim regarding sexual abuse against the Right Reverend George Bell”. The complaint concerns the abuse of a young child in the late 1940s and early 1950s.                   

Tracey Emmott, the solicitor for the survivor, said that her client remained “bitter” that the original complaint, made in 1995, was “not properly listened to or dealt with until my client made contact with Archbishop Justin Welby’s office in 2013”. This failure had been “very damaging, and combined with the abuse that was suffered has had a profound effect on my client’s life”.

The survivor first reported the abuse to the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Eric Kemp, in August 1995, the statement said. The late Dr Kemp responded to the correspondence offering pastoral support, but did not refer the matter to the police or, so far as is known, investigate the complaint further. Dr Kemp died in 2009; Bishop Bell in 1958.

After contacting Lambeth Palace in 2013, the survivor was put in touch with the safeguarding team at the diocese of Chichester, who referred the matter to the police and offered personal support and counselling. The information that Sussex police obtained after meeting the survivor “would have justified, had he still been alive, Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview, on suspicion of serious sexual offences”, the Church House statement said.

A formal claim for compensation was submitted in April 2014 and was settled last month. None of the expert independent reports commissioned during the investigations “found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim”, the statement said.

Dr Warner has written to the survivor, who has chosen to remain anonymous, formally apologising and expressing his “deep sorrow”. The diocese’s original response “fell a long way short, not just of what is expected now, but of what we now appreciate you should have had a right to expect then.”

The complaint is the latest in a series to have come to light in the diocese of Chichester. The scale of the problem prompted the first Archiepiscopal Visitation for 100 years. Two years after an interim report warned of ongoing “dysfunctionality”, the final 2013 report concluded that “enormous steps forward” had been taken, but that the diocese must avoid complacency. Last week, a former Bishop of Lewes, the Rt Revd Peter Ball, was sentenced to three years in prison for offences against teenage boys and young men.

Dr Warner has issued repeated formal apologies to survivors of abuse perpetrated by priests in the diocese. His commitment to doing so has been welcomed by representatives of survivors.                    

“For my client, the compensation finally received does not change anything,” Ms Emmott said. “How could any amount of money possibly compensate for childhood abuse? However, my client recognises that it represents a token of apology. What mattered to my client most and has brought more closure than anything was the personal letter my client has recently received from the Bishop of Chichester.”

Bell, Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958, has been widely admired in the Church. At a memorial service in 1958, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, described him as “an elder statesman” and “one of the special glories of the Church of England”.                

Revered for his outspoken commitment to ecumenism, peace and reconciliation, and the arts, he inspired several memorials, including Chichester University’s George Bell Institute, founded in 1996 to “forward Bell’s interests as writers, ecumen­ists, artists, and cam­paigners against injustice” (Features, 3 October 2008).

His denunciation of Hitler before the outbreak of the Second World War was prompted by his contact with anti-Nazi Christians in Germany. He gave help to Jews fleeing the Continent, and housed both refugees and evacuees at the Palace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for his part in the bomb plot against Hitler, addressed his last words to Bell, his friend. But the Bishop was also a tireless peacemaker, incurring the displeasure of the wartime coalition government and many members of the public for his condemnation of the saturation bombing of German cities. His stance is widely believed to have prevented his nomination as Archbishop of Canterbury.

He was a champion of the arts, and his invitation to T. S. Eliot to write a play resulted in Murder in the Cathedral.

An annual commemoration of “George Bell, bishop, ecumenist, peacemaker” was added to the Common Worship calendar after receiving final approval in the General Synod in July 2010.

The news about the allegations brought about “a bewildering mix of deep and disturbing emotions”, Dr Warner said, in a statement to the diocese of Chichester. “In touching the legacy and reputation of George Bell, it yields a bitter fruit of great sadness and a sense that we are all diminished by what we are being told.”

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