A SMALL group of senior clergy, lawyers, historians, and MPs has issued a robust defence of the former Bishop of Chichester George Bell saying that a church investigation which concluded that he probably abused a young girl was flawed.
The allegation that Bishop Bell, revered as one of the Church of England’s leading 20th-century figures, sexually assaulted a child in the late 1940s and early ’50s first came to light last year (News, 22 October).
The victim, known only as Carol, was paid £15,000 compensation, and given an apology from the current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner.
But now the Church’s conclusion that Carol’s allegations were likely to be true have been vigorously contested by 12 people, calling themselves the George Bell Group.
They have issued their own review which suggests that the evidence in the case is weak, and certainly not enough to shatter the reputation of “a great man, a rare example of self-sacrificing human goodness”.
Among the group’s members are the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, the Very Revd Martyn Percy; Frank Field MP; Desmond Browne, a former chairman of the Bar who was baptised by Bishop Bell; Andrew Chandler, Bishop Bell’s biographer; and Judge Alan Pardoe, who wrote to the Church Times last year to castigate the “appalling unfair” statement issued by the C of E’s Communications Office (Letters to the Editor, 13 November).
The George Bell Group has sent its 12-page review to the Archbishop of Canterbury and insisted that the C of E apologise to Bishop Bell’s family and anyone else who “honoured his memory”.
Its letter says: “In view of the evidence that we have gathered and examined we have concluded that the allegation made against Bishop Bell cannot be upheld in terms of actual evidence or historical probability.
“We have concluded that on moral, pastoral and legal grounds the authorities of the Church of England clearly owe an apology, principally to the living relatives of Bishop Bell, and also to many people across the Churches who have honoured his memory.” A spokeswoman for Archbishop Welby declined to comment.
A spokeswoman for the C of E said: “The decision to settle the civil claim relating to the activities of Bishop Bell and make a formal apology was not taken lightly or without consideration of the impact on the reputation of George Bell.
“However in this case, as in others, the overriding goal was to search out the truth and issues of reputation cannot take priority over that.”
A spokeswoman for the diocese of Chichester said that they had nothing to add to their statement last October which announced the settlement.
As well as arguing that the October statement misled the press into reporting the allegations as fact, the George Bell Group’s review casts doubt on the investigation into Carol’s account, details of which have never been made public.
The George Bell Group says that it has tracked down figures such as Bishop Bell’s chaplain who says he was never spoken to by the Church’s investigators. The chaplain also says that Carol’s account cannot be true, as he has no recollection of a young girl spending regular evenings and weekends at the palace.
It notes also that Bishop Bell’s diary and other documents, which could have been used to see whether he was present at the palace on the days in question, were not examined by the investigators.
Dean Percy said that the case against Bishop Bell had not done him justice. “The investigation beggars belief. The authorities have acted unilaterally, but Bell is in common ownership — he is commemorated in the Church’s liturgical calendar.
“We didn’t write the review to critique Carol’s testimony but because we have fundamental questions about the process.”
The C of E were asking the world to take their conclusions about Bishop Bell on trust, when what was required was transparency, Dean Percy also said.
The George Bell Group’s statement concludes: “[Our] concern is that the valuable reputation of a great man . . . has been carelessly destroyed on the basis of slender evidence, sloppily investigated.”
The group’s move coincides with the collapse of a £1.8 million investigation by the Metropolitan Police, Operation Midland, which looked into claims of child abuse and murder by a supposed Westminster paedophile ring.
The Met announced on Monday that the 18-month inquiry would be shut down without having charged anyone. Famous names including the former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath and the former Home Secretary Lord Brittan were dragged into the investigation but all later cleared.
Last month, the Met police chief Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe refused to apologise for the force’s handling of allegations against the former army chief Lord Bramall, despite a grilling from MPs on the home affairs select committee.
On Tuesday, the chief executive of the College of Policing, Alex Marshall, said that the police should normally believe allegations of child abuse unless there was evidence to the contrary, telling police chiefs in a letter that many victims still did not want to come forward because they feared they would not be believed.
Letters to the Editor