THE Church of England’s safeguarding team has already rejected the key recommendation made in the critical independent review of the Church handling of the George Bell abuse allegations.
Lord Carlile, an experienced lawyer and judge and former Liberal Democrat MP, who conducted the review, called on the Church to change its rules so that alleged abusers, whether alive or dead, were not named publicly unless an investigating core group found a “proper basis of evidence” for the claims.
But the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Hancock, who leads on safeguarding for the C of E, said that, while the national safeguarding team had accepted that its processes were “deficient”, it none the less rejected this recommendation, because of its obligation to be transparent.
He accepted the “main thrust” of Lord Carlile’s recommendations, but “respectfully” disagreed about keeping alleged perpetrators anonymous. “The Church is committed to transparency,” he said. “We would look at each case on its merits, but generally would seek to avoid confidentiality clauses.
“The Church has always affirmed and treasured Bishop Bell’s principled stand in the Second World War, and his contribution to peace remains extraordinary. At the same time, we have a duty and commitment to listen to those reporting abuse and to protect their interests.”
Responding to Lord Carlile’s other criticisms of the Church’s handling of the case, Bishop Hancock acknowledged that the surviving relatives of Bishop Bell had suffered as a result of the child-abuse accusation. But so had Carol, he said. He apologised to both: “We are sorry that the Church has added to that pain through its handling of this case.”
Bishop Hancock said that Lord Carlile rightly condemned the Church for “over-steering” the inquiries into Bishop Bell by assuming that Carol’s allegations were true. But he insisted that changes had been made, and that there were new guidelines and funding for the national safeguarding team, which was now better equipped to tackle similar cases.
There was no apology, however, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who said in a statement that the decision to publish Bishop Bell’s name in the context of Carol’s allegations had been “taken with immense reluctance”.
He continued: “We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. No human being is entirely good or bad.”
Questioned about Archbishop Welby’s statement, Lord Carlile described it as “less than fully adroit”.
The George Bell Group, a collection of lawyers, historians, politicians, clerics, and others who have been campaigning to clear Bell’s name, said in a statement that Lord Carlile’s “devastating criticism of the Church’s process shows that Archbishop Welby was wrong in 2016 when he described the investigation as ‘very thorough’ and the finding of abuse as clearly correct on the balance of probabilities.
“The review has thoroughly vindicated the reputation of a man revered for his integrity across the Christian Church.”
Some are now calling for Bishop Bell’s name, which was removed from a Chichester Cathedral building and a C of E school in Sussex, to be reinstated. When questioned by reporters on this during a press conference last Friday, the current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said that renaming was a decision for the Cathedral Chapter and Dean.
Interviewed later on the Radio 4 Sunday programme, Dr Warner insisted that he and his colleagues had not “rushed to judgement” or “embarked on a process, having already made up our minds”. Despite having written a letter to Carol condemning child abuse and apologising for her experiences, he said that he had never declared Bishop Bell to be definitively guilty.
“I didn’t accept his guilt; I accepted that there was substance to her allegation and that she deserved an apology from the Church,” Dr Warner said.
“We were in a very difficult situation in dealing with somebody who was dead. One of the things we have learnt very helpfully from Lord Carlile’s report is that further work needs to be done in ensuring that there is somebody who can speak for the dead in a situation such as this.”
Speaking at the press conference last week, Dr Warner said that, while Bishop Bell’s good deeds would “stand the test of time”, “in every other respect, we have all been diminished by the case that Lord Carlile has reviewed.”