COMPLAINTS about the handling of an accusation against a former Bishop of Chichester have prompted the Chichester diocesan secretary, Gabrielle Higgins, to warn that those of high standing must not be granted a “higher threshold of suspicion”.
“There is no doubt that George Bell achieved many great things during his lifetime, for which he is rightly honoured and which should continue to be remembered,” Ms Higgins writes in the diocese’s safeguarding newsletter. “But any suggestion that those who have done good deeds should be afforded an extra degree of protection from serious allegations cannot be upheld. This is fundamentally wrong.”
She warns that such a position has previously led the Church to mishandle allegations: “We cannot . . . allow this to continue in the 21st century. . . We must never demand a higher threshold of suspicion because the accused person is of high standing, or has an ‘impeccable’ reputation, however uncomfortable this may make us feel.”
It was announced in October that the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, had issued a formal apology after the settlement of a civil claim regarding alleged sexual abuse by Bishop George Bell (News, 22 October). Journalists including Peter Hitchens and Charles Moore have since criticised the diocese’s actions (Press, 8 January). Letters to the Church Times have also raised concerns (Letters, 4 December, 6, 13, and 20 November).
Ms Higgins writes that “vexed questions” are “understandable. . . But here we must also consider the courage displayed by any survivor in coming forward.” She explains that, “for legal reasons, it has often been impossible to respond to specific questions”, but goes on to set out how the presumption of innocence applies to criminal, not civil cases. The former would not be possible, she says, for a deceased person.
In response to demands to see the evidence in the case, she argues that “this cannot outweigh the individual’s right of privacy.” Even if the diocese wanted to do so, “it is legally impermissible for the Church to disclose any evidence used in the settlement, or any information that might lead to identification of the complainant.”
The newsletter suggests that some readers “will have despaired” at reports of more abuse in the diocese and apparent failure to deal with it.
“This has been a very hard time for the Diocese, but it has been much harder for the victims,” the safeguarding team writes.