CHURCH of England officials “rushed to judgement” when they concluded that a former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, had sexually abused a young girl in the 1950s, an independent review has concluded.
The committee that investigated the allegations, made by a woman known only as “Carol”, “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides”, Lord Carlile, the independent reviewer, found.
“As a result, it concluded all too easily that Carol was telling the truth and Bishop Bell was responsible for serious abuse,” he said.
Although the Church “acted throughout in good faith”, it was overly fearful of once again failing to listen to survivors of abuse. As a result, it over-corrected by rushing to judgement against the long-dead Bishop.
Although Lord Carlile’s brief did not included determining whether Bishop Bell was innocent of the charges, he concludes in his review: “For Bishop Bell’s reputation to be catastrophically affected in the way that occurred was just wrong.”
The news about Bishop Bell broke in a C of E press release in October 2015, which announced without warning that the diocese of Chichester had apologised and reached a settlement with Carol after her allegations against Bishop Bell (News, 22 October 2015).
Bell has been regarded as one of the Church’s outstanding clerics of the 20th century; for his public stand against the saturation bombing of Germany cities during the Second World War, among other things, and his active support for the Kindertransport movement.
The review — commissioned last year after a fierce campaign by defenders of Bell (News, 25 November 2016) — was published last Friday. Its terms of reference did not include determining Bishop Bell’s guilt or innocence: its purpose was to examine the procedures used by the C of E’s safeguarding team to reach their conclusion.
The Church first failed to serve Carol well when she first wrote to the then-Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, in 1995, to disclose the alleged abuse at the hands of Bishop Bell. Instead of simply writing back to her encouraging her to talk to her parish priest, Bishop Kemp should have begun a “genuine process of inquiry” and probably met Carol in person.
When Carol next reported her abuse, in an email to Lambeth Palace in 2012, she was given an “inadequate” reply, Lord Carlile writes. A second email, in 2013, did not receive a substantive reply for almost three weeks. This round of correspondence eventually connected Carol with an independent abuse adviser, Gemma Wordsworth, who became a vital confidant and support.
Lord Carlile criticises confusion over the burden of proof when testing Carol’s allegations. His review concludes that it was right for the Core Group that examined the case against Bishop Bell to rely on the civil burden of proof — proving Carol’s allegations on the balance of probabilities rather than the criminal burden of beyond all reasonable doubt.
The Core Group also decided, however, that the possible damage to a dead man’s reputation was considerably less important than the needs of Carol, the review says. “Whilst understandable and superficially appealing, I have concluded that this approach is wrong,” Lord Carlile writes.
Instead, the Church should adopt a public standard of proof for cases where the accused is dead. The “complainant” — Lord Carlile criticises the modern trend to referring to all those who make allegations automatically as victims or survivors — should be required to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that their accusation is true.
The advice given to the Church was that, if Carol’s case had come to court, it would have been proved on the balance of probabilities. But Lord Carlile writes that, if the Core Group had seen the evidence that his review had managed to uncover without great difficulty, the case would not have been thought strong enough even to be tested in court.
The review is damning about the inadequacies of the Core Group’s investigations. No call for evidence went out, no attempts were made to find any other potential victims, no interviews were taken with the surviving staff at the Bishop’s palace, and no contact was made with the Bishop’s surviving relatives.
Lord Carlile notes that, apart from unsubstantiated and anonymous secondhand allegations in a local newspaper which he had been unable to probe properly, no one else had ever come forward, before or after Carol, to accuse Bishop Bell of impropriety.
Lord Carlile says that the Church’s inquiries were hindered by failures by Sussex Police: the specialist officers who were consulted about Carol’s story gave the misleading impression that they had done a thorough investigation, and that her allegations were credible enough to be likely to lead to prosecution.
In fact, all the police did was to interview Carol once, and the test that should have been applied to her claims was not whether they made prosecution likely, but whether there was a realistic prospect of conviction, which there was not.
“The view that a prosecution would have failed does not mean that Carol has not told the truth — which, as I emphasised earlier, it is not part of my task to decide,” the review notes.
“I regret that Bishop Bell’s reputation, and the need for a rigorous factual analysis of the case against him, were swept up by a tide focused on settling Carol’s civil claim and the perceived imperative of public transparency,” he writes.
The Core Group’s key concern was not the justice of the case, for either Carol or Bishop Bell, but the reputation of the Church, Lord Carlile states. Underlying all discussions was the assumption that Carol must be telling the truth; even by the second meeting of the Group, “any notion of a balanced investigation had been abandoned”.
Although there was no “calculated intention to damage Bishop Bell’s reputation”, the Church “oversteered” towards what it thought were Carol’s and the C of E’s best interests, with the result that Bishop Bell’s standing was destroyed for all but his most devoted supporters.
Lord Carlile’s report makes a series of recommendations about how future safeguarding inquiries should be conducted. The most significant is that alleged abusers, whether alive or dead, must not be named publicly unless an investigating core group finds a “proper basis of evidence” for the claims.
When a case results in a financial settlement without an admission of liability, as in the Bishop Bell case, there should be a confidentiality clause in the settlement to stop the accused’s name ever being published.
The workings of future core groups should also be overhauled, Lord Carlile recommends. There must be someone assigned to advocate for the accused or their descendants, and it should be emphasised to those making allegations that the core group maintains the concept of innocent until proven guilty. Each core group should also include someone with up-to-date experience of the criminal law and procedure.