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Welby is urged to withdraw George Bell ‘cloud’ statement after Carlile report

22 January 2018


THE Archbishop of Canterbury said this week that he cannot, with integrity, clear the name of George Bell, the former Bishop of Chichester.

On Monday afternoon, Archbishop Welby issued a statement in response to continued criticism of the Church’s treatment of Bishop Bell, saying that action had been taken based on “the balance of probability”.

There has been growing criticism of Archbishop Welby’s response to Lord Carlile’s independent review of the Bishop Bell affair. After the review was published, the Archbishop said: “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.” (News, 22 December).

The Carlile report concluded that Church of England officials had “rushed to judgement” when they concluded that Bishop Bell had sexually abused a young girl in the 1950s. It found flaws in the process by which the diocese of Chichester had assumed that Bishop Bell was guilty of abusing a girl, “Carol”, who later came forward with her story.

Three letters — one from seven academic historians, one from ten theologians (see next story), and another from 11 correspondents associated with ecumenism — have been sent to the Archbishop.

The historians’ letter — signed by Professors Charmian Brinson, Andrew Chandler, John Charmley, Michael J. Hughes, Sir Ian Kershaw, Jeremy Noakes, and Keith Robbins — was sent to Lambeth Palace and extracts were published in The Daily Telegraph on Thursday of last week.

The letter expresses “profound dismay” at the Archbishop’s statement after the publication of the Carlile review and calls on him to retract it. It says that the office of Archbishop gives him “no authority to pronounce on the reputation of Bishop Bell in the manner you have done. We are prepared, in this letter, to claim that authority. We state our position bluntly. There is no credible evidence at all that Bishop Bell was a paedophile. . .

Portrait: George Bell, painted in 1955“None of us may be considered natural critics of an Archbishop of Canterbury, but we must also draw a firm line. The statement of 15 December 2017 [in response to the publication of the Carlile report] seems to us both irresponsible and dangerous.

“We therefore urge you, in all sincerity, to repudiate what you have said before more damage is done and thus to restore the esteem in which the high, historic office to which you have been called has been held.”

The Revd Dr Keith Clements, a veteran Baptist ecumenist and former general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, is the lead signatory of the ecumenical letter, which urges that the wider community’s interests not be subordinated to the reputational interests of the C of E.

The letter says: “He [Bishop Bell] is central to the ecumenical story of Christianity in the twentieth century, and as an inspiring leader, he belongs to the ecumenical movement no less than to his own Church. The way in which the allegations against him were dealt with, and the slur allowed to fall on his character, has been deeply hurtful to all such.”

In a statement issued on Monday, in response to the historians’ letter, Archbishop Welby said: “I cannot with integrity rescind my statement, made after the publication of Lord Carlile’s review into how the Church handled the Bishop Bell case. I affirmed the extraordinary courage and achievement of Bishop Bell both before the war and during its course while noting the Church has a duty to take seriously the allegation made against him.

“Our history over the last 70 years has revealed that the Church covered up, ignored or denied the reality of abuse on major occasions. . .

“The Diocese of Chichester was given legal advice to make a settlement based on the civil standard of proof, the balance of probability. It was not alleged that Bishop Bell was found to have abused on the criminal standard of proof, beyond reasonable doubt.”

He said that his response to the Carlile review was written with the “support of both Bishop Peter Hancock, the lead bishop for safeguarding, and Bishop Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester”.

All three, he said, demur from Lord Carlile’s recommendation that a “better way to have handled the allegation would have been for the Church to offer money on condition of confidentiality”.

Citing the case of Peter Ball (News, 30 June), the disgraced former Bishop of Gloucester, Archbishop Welby writes: “It is often suggested that what is being alleged could not have been true, because the person writing knew the alleged abuser and is absolutely certain that it was impossible for them to have done what is alleged. . . The experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic.

“But as I said strongly in my original statement, the complaint about Bishop Bell does not diminish the importance of his great achievements, and he is one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century.”

In a letter published in The Times on Monday, ten men who were choristers at Chichester Cathedral and pupils at Prebendal School in the 1940s and 50s describe Bishop Bell as “a man whose fundamental integrity we saw, and throughout our life have continued to value”. They assert: “We have never accepted that ‘Carol’ identified Bishop Bell rightly as her abuser. . .

“The church now has a responsibility to restore Bishop Bell to his deserved and special place in its life.”

Speaking in the House of Lords on Monday, the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Revd Donald Allister, urged the Government “to take very seriously the call for a major review of anonymity” in cases when allegations are made of sexual abuse.

He said: “In all cases where the complainant has a right to be anonymous, there seems to be a case for the respondent also to be anonymous, and in cases until there is overwhelming evidence to suggest guilt, it seems reasonable for people’s reputations not to be damaged in this public way.”

The Conservative peer Lord Cormack urged the government review the law regarding anonymity. “The reputation of a great man has been traduced, and many of us who are Anglicans are deeply ashamed of the way that the Anglican Church has behaved,” he said.


‘Saint, tarnished’ - Leader comment

Newspapers circle as Archbishop Welby digs in’ - Andrew Brown


Theologians join the fight to clear George Bell’s name

ON WEDNESDAY, the Archbishop of Canterbury received a third letter in support of Bishop Bell, this time drafted by Canon Anthony Harvey, who died earlier this month, and signed by nine eminent theologians.

The letter argues that, having appointed Lord Carlile, a representative of “temporal justice”, to pronounce on the Church’s handling of the Bell affair, Archbishop Welby should not have disagreed with one of his key findings — that someone accused of abuse deserves anonymity until the charge is proved — “without advancing strong moral grounds”.

Furthermore, Canon Harvey argues, the principle of being innocent until proved guilty rests in Natural Law. “Natural Law has been accepted in mainstream church thinking for many centuries; therefore to repudiate it would represent a radical (and deeply unpopular) attack on received doctrine, which again would require very strong moral grounds if it were to be sustained.”

Writing before Archbishop Welby’s second statement, in which he attributes the payment to “Carol” to a decision based on the civil-law standard of proof, Canon Harvey states: “Lord Carlile’s very thorough examination of the Church’s procedures and of the evidence considered shows that [Bell’s] alleged guilt is very far from being established to the standard of either a criminal trial (beyond reasonable doubt) or civil litigation (balance of probabilities).”

The letter urges Archbishop Welby to repudiate his “respectful disagreement” with a report “conducted with great integrity by a respected lawyer”, and asks him to do all in his power to restore the reputation of “one of the most respected, courageous and prophetic church leaders of the twentieth century”.


The full text of the open letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Dear Archbishop,

As a group of professional theologians in the Church of England, we feel bound to express to you our concern at the brief statement you issued in response to Lord Carlile’s report on the George Bell case. It clearly implied two assertions: first, that you ‘disagreed’ with Lord Carlile’s recommendation that there should be greater respect for confidentiality than was shown in this case; secondly, that despite this authoritative legal judgment that the case against him was fatally flawed, you still believe that Bishop George Bell was guilty of serious sexual abuse. On both counts your public expression of these views has very serious implications, not just for the reputation of a great bishop, but for the church as a whole. We take these two points in order.

Transparency and confidentiality. You ‘respectfully disagreed’ with the report that a confidentiality condition should protect the identity of an alleged abuser until a definite judgment of guilt could be obtained (paras 29 and 33). This recommendation was made and argued for by an eminent practitioner of the law and supported by generally accepted principles of legal practice. As such, it was an authoritative exercise of that ‘temporal justice’ which official documents of the Church of England strongly endorse. It is of course true that Christian thinking has not been unanimous about the validity under God of human secular justice: the Lutheran tradition has tended to separate it from the principles of the divine justice that must be normative in the church. But historically the C of E has followed the Augustinian tradition of an intimate connection between the two; and recent documents of the Faith and Order Commission place great emphasis on it.

In its report, Forgiveness and Reconciliation in the Aftermath of Abuse (2017), that Commission, appointed by the Archbishops, defines this ‘temporal justice’ as ‘the public, effective and visible work of the government, law and statutory authorities charged with prosecuting injustice without fear or favour’. It then goes on to say (p.12, repeated with emphasis on p.41) that this ‘temporal justice’ is commissioned by God to do its work and should be held in high esteem by the Church of England and especially by those who hold responsibility in it (our emphasis).

We would not wish to say, of course, that the church or those who speak from Christian conviction should never feel free to question or challenge a legal judgment: there are times, indeed, when to do so may be part of its prophetic role. But it cannot credibly do so without advancing strong moral grounds. In this case the only reason you have advanced is that ‘transparency’ must take precedence over confidentiality.

It is true that transparency has become a requirement in government, Whitehall, charities and all public institutions: the public has a right to know, so long as this knowledge does not prejudice its safety or well-being; and certainly the church must not be left behind. But it is ironic that you should invoke this principle in reference to the case of George Bell, in which the church’s procedures were the very opposite of transparent.

We were not allowed to know what investigations had taken place; what witnesses had been consulted (it emerged that relatives had not been informed, and one witness still living had not been questioned); who the ‘experts’ were whose advice had been sought and what was their expertise. Indeed there was relevant evidence available bearing on the case which Lord Carlile was able to access without difficulty but which was not pursued in the church’s enquiry.

None of this measured up to ‘transparency’ as it is now understood in secular institutions. We welcome your determination to see it better observed by the church. But, like all general principles, there may be occasions when it competes with equally valid ones, in this case the anonymity which, according to natural justice, should be awarded to the alleged perpetrator just as it is to the person who alleges abuse. The need for transparency, by itself, hardly amounts to grounds on which to abandon that unqualified respect for our legal institutions which is solemnly enjoined upon church leaders by the Faith and Order Commission.

George Bell’s guilt or innocence. You went on to say that ‘a significant cloud is left over his [George Bell’s] name’. We have already referred to the esteem in which the church, and especially its leaders, are required to hold the legal procedures of this country. A guiding principle of these procedures is that a person must be held innocent until proved guilty. This is a principle for which it is not easy to find a basis in Christian doctrine; it rests rather on natural justice, which is itself derived from Natural Law.

But Natural Law has been accepted in mainstream church thinking for many centuries; therefore to repudiate it would represent a radical (and deeply unpopular) attack on received doctrine, which again would require very strong moral grounds if it were to be sustained. In George Bell’s case, Lord Carlile’s very thorough examination of the church’s procedures and of the evidence considered shows that his alleged guilt is very far from being established to the standard of either a criminal trial (beyond reasonable doubt) or civil litigation (balance of probabilities).

You may of course continue to believe privately that Bell is more likely than not to have committed such an abuse, even though this was reported after an interval of seventy years in a single uncorroborated testimony, and even if, as Andrew Chandler, his biographer and a professional historian, has stated, the evidence for his probity, conscientiousness and dedication is exceptionally strong. But given the total absence of probative evidence in this case, to allow this suspicion to undermine the reputation of a person regarded as a shining light in the history of the C of E and recognised in its Calendar is a serious matter. When it is endorsed by the highest authority in the church (which you represent) it becomes very serious indeed.

It is true, of course, that the merest suspicion of the abuse of a child, even in the distant past, causes revulsion in Christian people. Jesus was explicit on the value and dignity of children (far in advance of his culture and his times) and severe in his words condemning any who caused them harm. This revulsion is shared very widely, and in recent years has begun to affect even legal procedures. Children have a ‘sacred innocence’ awarded to them, children’s rights take precedence over those of adults, and even the law of evidence shows signs of being subverted in favour of credence being given to any report of abuse, even when there is no corroboration.

This has resulted, certainly, in greater protection both for children and for other vulnerable people; but it also jeopardises the rights and reputations of innocent people — as recent highly publicised cases of distinguished public figures have shown. Along with the necessary pursuit and punishment of offenders, there is a mounting cry for justice for those wrongfully accused of abuse. Of these, Bishop Bell, long after his death, has now been shown to be one.

We believe that it is incumbent on you, with your authority as Archbishop of Canterbury, to repudiate your ‘respectful disagreement’ with a report conducted with great integrity by a respected lawyer, to be an example of the esteem for temporal justice which the Faith and Order Commission has stated to be an obligation laid on all church leaders, and to reaffirm the principle of innocence until found guilty in this as in all comparable cases.

For these reasons we must respectfully urge you to do all in your power to rehabilitate the reputation of one of the most respected, courageous and prophetic church leaders of the twentieth century; and by making this letter public we hope to emphasise the seriousness of the situation in which your statement has placed all of us in the church who respect and are grateful for your leadership.

The Revd Dr Anthony Harvey (who died 9 January 2018)

Supported by:

  • Professor Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, University of Oxford
  • The Revd Professor David Brown, FBA, FRSE, Emeritus Professor of Theology, University of St Andrews
  • The Revd Professor John Drury, All Souls College, Oxford
  • Professor James Dunn FBA, Emeritus, University of Durham
  • The Revd Canon Professor David Jasper DD FRSE, University of Glasgow
  • Professor Ann Loades CBE, University of St Andrews
  • The Revd Robert Morgan, Emeritus Fellow, Linacre College, University of Oxford
  • The Revd Dr John Muddiman, Emeritus Fellow, Mansfield College, University of Oxford
  • The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

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