LORD CARLILE, who is to review the Church of England’s handling of the George Bell child-abuse allegations, insists that his inquiry will deliver a robust and independent verdict.
It was announced on Wednesday that the peer, an experienced lawyer and judge and former Liberal Democrat MP, would be leading the review of the affair, in which a woman, referred to under the pseudonym Carol, complained that Bell, a former Bishop of Chichester, who died in 1958, had sexually abused her at his palace when she was a child. She received £15,000 compensation in recognition that the complaint had been handled badly over a number of years (News, 23 October 2015).
A church statement to the media about the compensation settlement accepted Bell’s guilt, and prompted campaigning in his defence. The Church of England has been accused of destroying a revered churchman’s reputation on flimsy evidence (News, 24 March). The review of the case was announced in July (News, 1 July).
Lord Carlile has been asked to review both how the diocese of Chichester dealt with Carol’s initial complaint in 1995, her subsequent complaints sent to Lambeth Palace, and how the Church’s own investigation came to conclude that, on the balance of probabilities, Bishop Bell had abused Carol.
“The important thing about my review is that is should produce an objective assessment and lessons learned on an evidence base,” Lord Carlile said on Tuesday. Investigating the Church’s own inquiries into the truth of Carol’s complaint would be the “heart” of his job.
“I shall be crawling into files like a mole and looking at every detail in them,” Lord Carlile said. Material from both inside and outside the C of E would be considered, including any written evidence submitted by Bell’s defenders. He said that he was well aware that there were “strongly held opinions both for and against Bishop Bell”, but he was only interested in what evidence was available to substantiate those views.
The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, the lead bishop for safeguarding, said that there would always be lessons to be learnt from every significant case. “The Church of England takes all safeguarding issues very seriously, and we will continue to listen to everyone affected in this case while we await the findings of the review. The diocese of Chichester continues to be in touch and offer support to the survivor known as Carol, who brought the allegations,” he said.
Desmond Browne QC, a member of the George Bell Group, which seeks to rehabilitate his reputation, told the BBC: “I’ve obviously had to look closely at the settlement, and nothing that I have seen either about the evidence or the process adopted by the Church has led me to believe that there is any substance in the allegations.”
To protect Carol’s identity and for legal reasons, not all of the report will be made public; but Lord Carlile expected that as much as possible would be.
“My intention is to produce a public report, and I’m confident that the Church of England will release everything that is material in this report. I would not be doing this if I did not have the right kind of assurances about the outcome.”
The review is due to be completed by the summer. Lord Carlile said that he had cleared his diary to dedicate “some quality time” to it, to report in a “timely fashion”.
An inquiry into sweeping allegations of child abuse by prominent figures in Westminster, the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Midland, was the subject of stinging criticism by its reviewer, Sir Richard Henriques, earlier this month. The findings led the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, to apologise for “serious failings” to prominent figures who were publicly accused of child abuse but later found to be innocent.
Lord Carlile said that he held Sir Richard’s judgement in high regard, and would take his findings into account.