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Judging the dead

04 December 2015

THE latest story from an abuse survivor, recounted on the news pages this week, raises again the question how to proceed when the accused is dead, and cannot answer for himself. There is still widespread disquiet about the shadow cast over Bishop George Bell, who died in 1958, after the diocese of Chichester apologised for mishandling a complaint made against the Bishop in 1995. No further information has been released by the diocese to enable those outside the negotiations over the apology make an informed assessment of this unexpected addition to Bishop Bell’s biography. Some have used this reticence as an opportunity to assert Bishop Bell’s innocence, but this conclusion is as unsafe as the instant assumption made by many that he was guilty. The result is that Bell now rests uneasily in some sort of moral limbo.

Accusations against the deceased must be judged in the same way as those against the living: by weighing up the evidence, looking for corroboration, and assessing the plausibility of the accuser. This should not scare us off: even when the accused is alive and available for cross-examination, he or she might be a convincing liar, and thus contribute little to the uncovering of the truth. It is clearly more difficult to come to a secure judgment over a deceased person, but not impossible. The Revd E. Garth Moore was a former chancellor of three dioceses, and wrote extensively on ecclesiastical law, in publications that included the Church Times. His obituaries indicate that he could be an idiosyncratic and demanding character. But neither his status nor his personal reputation has any bearing on the likelihood of his being an abuser. This rests on the detailed recollection of the survivor, and the number of others to whom he has recounted his story in the past. The survivor complains about having been put through the mill by the lawyers, but at least their unwillingness to give ground lends weight to their agreement to settle, and to the unreserved apology that the survivor has received.

An institution exists only as far as the people within it conform to its corporate mores. It sounds odd when church spokespeople praise an abuse survivor for possessing the courage to stand up to their employer. But the spokespeople were not responsible for the obfuscation and foot-dragging that the survivor suffered, and their voices are refreshingly welcome. When Justice Lowell Goddard considers the Church as part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, a new spirit of openness will help to offset the likely criticism of its past safeguarding practices. An organisation can be held accountable for the actions of those for whom it is responsible, but, if those within the organisation can speak with freedom, they change the culture within the organisation, and the tenor of its dealings with those who have been damaged by it.

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