THE saga of the child-abuse allegations against the late George Bell, a former Bishop of Chichester, continued this week. General Synod members gathered support for a motion that attacks the Church of England’s handling of the episode, which was also discussed in the House of Lords.
Last week, Church House announced an independent review of the C of E’s investigation into an unnamed woman’s claims of abuse by Bell (News, 1 July).
In October, the Church announced that it would settle a civil legal claim brought by “Carol”, who alleges that as a young child she was abused by Bell in the 1940s and ’50s. The Bishop of Chichester apologised to her for her ordeal (News, 30 October).
But, almost immediately, high-profile defenders of Bell launched a campaign to clear his name, arguing that the Church’s examination of Carol’s allegations had been inadequate and unnecessarily secretive.
Now, two retired lawyers and members of the Synod, Martin Sewell and David Lamming, are gathering signatures for a private members’ motion of “no confidence in the investigation conducted on behalf of the Church of England into the allegations against the late Bishop Bell, by reason of its lack of transparency and accountability”.
In a letter appealing for Synod members’ support, Mr Sewell and Mr Lamming wrote that, while they took no view on the credibility of the accusations against Bell, the Church had acted poorly by hiding behind claims of confidentiality.
“It seemed incomprehensible to us why the Church should wish to continue in the absurd fiction that it cannot answer the most basic of questions about the processes by which it reached its conclusion in the case of Bishop Bell.”
Clergy members are asked if they would be content to have their reputations handled in the same way as Bell’s after their deaths.
Mr Sewell said on Monday that, because the Synod meeting was shorter than usual, he expected not to be able to gather the 100 signatures required for debate until next February.
Last week, during a debate in the House of Lords on guidelines on how to investigate historic child abuse, the Bell case was raised by peers, including Lord Dear, a former chief constable and a member of the group that is leading the pro-Bell campaign.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey also intervened in the debate, saying that Bell’s career did not contain even a “whiff of scandal” and that he was a “man of deepest integrity”.
“I am distressed to make this observation of my own Church, but it seems to me that in this particular instance, its procedures have had the character of a kangaroo court and not a just, compassionate, and balanced investigation of the facts,” he said.
He also suggested that the review ordered last week might be an attempt by the C of E to “fob us off”, and urged that it be objective and open to show that justice has been done.
Responding to the debate, the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, said that the Church welcomed the new statutory guidelines on historic allegations of abuse.
He also said that the Church continued to acknowledge Bell’s principled stand against saturation bombing in the Second World War, and his contribution to the peace and ecumenical movements.
“It is therefore a very painful blow to me, as it is to many in the Church and in wider society, that a man of such extraordinary gifts could also have been so flawed,” Bishop Cottrell said.
The Church had spent 18 months testing the allegations made by Carol, taking legal advice and consulting Sussex Police, besides examining Bell’s papers at Lambeth Palace and medical reports.
“The legal advice was that, had the claim been tested by a court, on the balance of probabilities, Carol would have won her claim. In those circumstances, the proper thing to do was to settle the case rather than putting a survivor through the harrowing process of giving evidence.
“We cannot answer many of the points that have been made without revealing information that could lead to [Carol’s] identification.”
Bishop Cottrell also responded to Lord Carey: “To call the prayerful, careful, sensitive, and serious investigation ‘a kangaroo court’ was a really rather unhelpful slur.” He confirmed that the review would be led by an independent person outside the Church’s original investigation.
Members of the George Bell Group, which campaigns to clear his name, have also written to the Archbishop of Canterbury to welcome the review, but urge that it be truly independent and re-examine the result of the investigation, not merely the process.