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Saint, tarnished

26 January 2018

THE Archbishop of Canterbury would have us rethink our at­­titude towards heroes: acknowledging their bravery and moral rectitude while allowing them to have the feet of clay that belong to the human condition. But the Church does not think in terms of heroes. It has saints. And, although we allow our saints to have a shady past, and overlook a few negative traits — irascibility, per­­haps, or poor personal hygiene — we draw the line at abuse. The Archbishop might be able to think well of Bishop Bell while believing, as he seems to, the probability that Bell was responsible for the abuse of “Carol”. But this is like maintaining respect for Jimmy Savile because he was a good DJ and did charity work.

The pathology of paedophilia is held to be such that isolated cases rarely exist. It is this argument that is used to justify the public naming of suspected abusers to encourage other victims to come forward. But, when such an exercise fails to turn up any further evidence — and, indeed, prompts testimonies to the probity of the accused — this ought to have a bearing on the original accusation, especially when confidence in the treatment of sexual offences is being under­­mined by high-profile bungles.

It would be wrong to dismiss Carol’s testimony out of hand, as some of Bell’s supporters have. A power-company policy of ignor­­­ing a report of an outage until it receives a second phone call is no help to the household sitting in the dark. But the law courts are brutally black-and-white: there is no verdict between guilty or innocent, at least outside Scotland, and even Arch­­bishop Welby acknowledges that no court would convict on the present evidence.

It is because innocence is harder to prove than guilt that the UK legal system insists on assuming innocence until guilt has been proved. It is this assumption that Bishop Bell is being denied, and it is for this reason that Lord Carlile and others have advocated anonymity for those accused of abuse. Sir Cliff Richard, at the end of a successful fight to clear his name, re­­­marked: “It hurt me so much I don’t think I can ever recover personally.” Of course, Bishop Bell knows nothing of the accusation. Instead, it is the Church of England’s own history and reputation that is being harmed, despite this talk of heroes.

It is clear that the Lambeth psyche has been seriously bruised by the Peter Ball affair. Archbishop Welby named the disgraced former Bishop of Gloucester three times in his short statement about Bishop Bell on Monday. Possibly, too, there are personal scars from the John Smyth cover-up. But an unwinnable wrangle over an unprovable case undermines the Church’s efforts to construct a credible response to present-day instances of abuse.

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