THE Church of England has announced an independent review of its handling of child-abuse allegations against the late George Bell, a former Bishop of Chichester. But the announcement from Church House, Westminster, said that the terms of reference and who would lead the review would be made known later.
The Church has faced constant criticism for its handling of the case since it announced in 2015 that it was settling a civil legal claim by a woman who said that she had been abused by Bell at his home in Chichester when she was a child in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The complainant, known by the pseudonym Carol, was paid £15,000 compensation, and given an apology from the current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner.
But critics say that Bell, who died in 1958, has been denied the assumption of innocence and that his reputation has been unfairly destroyed on the back of a flawed investigation in which potential witnesses were not questioned, and Bell’s diaries were not consulted.
“The review will look at the processes surrounding the allegations which were first brought in 1995 to the diocese of Chichester with the same allegations brought again, this time to Lambeth Palace, in 2013,” the C of E statement said. “It will also consider the processes, including the commissioning of expert independent reports and archival and other investigations, which were used to inform the decision to settle the case.
“The settlement was based on the balance of probabilities as criminal proceedings cannot be brought in a case where the alleged perpetrator is dead.”
The statement emphasises that “the House of Bishops practice guidance states that once all matters relating to any serious safeguarding situation have been completed, the Core Group should meet again to review the process and to consider what lessons can be learned for the handling of future serious safeguarding situations. A review has always been carried out in any case involving allegations against a bishop.”
A group of 12 prominent clergy, lawyers, historians, and MPs have formed the George Bell Group to restore Bishop Bell’s reputation (News, 24 March). One of them, the historian Dr Andrew Chandler, had applied to be a “core participant” in the Government’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) (News, 18 March). But the New Zealand judge heading the inquiry, Justice Lowell Goddard, rejected his application. “Bishop Bell’s guilt or innocence is not a critical aspect of this Inquiry, the Anglican investigation, or the investigation’s case studies,” she said.
“Even were the Inquiry investigating Bishop Bell’s guilt or innocence, Dr Chandler cannot be regarded as having a significant interest in that matter, as distinct from his interest in the rehabilitation of Bishop Bell’s name. . . He does not advance any first-hand knowledge of Bishop Bell, of the abuse allegedly committed by him, or of the Chichester diocese’s response to those allegations.”
The IICSA will hold another preliminary hearing on the Anglican Church on 27 July.
Dr Warner said that the review should “provide a constructive way forward for all concerned”, and that the Church would continue to support Carol. “As in any serious safeguarding situation it is always important to learn lessons from the process, and this review will ensure this is done,” he said.