Visits to Bell’s palace were my girlhood ordeal, paper told

05 February 2016

CHRIS GUNNS/GEOGRAPH

Gatehouse: Bishop's Palace, Chichester

Gatehouse: Bishop's Palace, Chichester

THE survivor who raised allegations of sexual abuse by a former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, has given her account in public for the first time.

In an interview with The Argus, a newspaper in Brighton and Hove, the survivor, who has chosen to remain anonymous, describes being repeatedly molested by Bishop Bell over a four-year period, from the age of five.

She said that a relative who worked at the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester would often take her there, “usually for two or three days at a time, sometimes a week”, as a favour to her mother, who was looking after a large family.

Bell would take her to a private room under the guise of reading her a bedtime story, she said, and sit her on his lap, before moving his hands over her thighs and interfering with her. “He said it was our little secret, because God loved me,” she told the paper, on Wednesday.

The survivor, who is now in her seventies, first reported the abuse in a letter to the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Eric Kemp, in August 1995. She said that she had done so after struggling with “feelings of guilt” for decades.

The late Dr Kemp responded by offering pastoral support, but did not refer the matter to the police or, so far as is known, investigate the complaint further. Dr Kemp died in 2009; Bishop Bell in 1958, having served as diocesan since 1929.

In 2013, the survivor contacted the Church once again. A formal claim for compensation was sub­mitted in April 2014, and was settled in September last year. Church House in Westminster issued a state­ment saying that none of the expert independent reports com­mis­­sioned during the investigations “found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim”. A formal apology was issued by the current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, 20 years after the com­plaint was first made (News, 22 October).

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The Church House statement said that the information obtained by Sussex Police after meeting the survivor “would have justified, had he still been alive, Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview, on suspicion of serious sexual offences”.

The survivor told The Argus that the abuse by Bell would happen “whenever he got a chance to take me off on my own”.

“My strongest memory is seeing this figure all in black, standing on a stair, waiting. He used to wear a black tunic thing that came down to his knees and long black leggings,” she said. “There were books all around the room. And then he’d shut the door.”

She said that the abuse “started off with a bit of touching”. There was no “undressing”, she said, but he would pull her knickers aside.

She had, she said, told a relative about what was happening at the Bishop’s Palace, but that her testi­mony “carried little weight” at the time. “Back then, you were told, ‘Shhh, you don’t say that, that’s not nice, don’t tell fibs’ . . . everything was swept under the carpet,” she said.

When she was nine, her family moved away from the area, and she never saw Bishop Bell again, she said; she married in her teens, and raised a family in the region, but away from the city of Chichester.

Her ordeal, she said, had caused her periods of depression, isolation, and guilt: “It’s something that lives with you for the rest of your life. It never goes away.”

Bishop Bell has been wide­ly ad­­mired in the Church for his out­spoken commitment to ecu­menism, peace and reconciliation, and the arts. The survivor said that attempts to preserve his legacy were “hurt­ful”, because “men who have done good things have also done very evil things. . .

“He still did good things else­where. But I was his weakness.”

On Wednesday, Dr Warner praised the “courage and integrity” of the survivor. “My hope is that the telling of her story will contribute to her sense of being heard by those within and beyond the Church who are willing to listen with an open mind, and respond with compas­sion and clarity.”

He criticised those who had queried the diocese’s actions: “The presence of strident voices in the public arena which have sought to undermine the survivor’s claims has added in this case to the suffering of the survivor and her family. . .

“We have witnessed shocking ignorance of the suffering felt at many different levels by victims of abuse.”

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