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Archbishop Welby apologises for ‘mistakes’ in case of George Bell

24 January 2019

George Bell, painted in 1955

George Bell, painted in 1955

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has apologised for “mistakes” made in the handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against a former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, after an independent investigation concluded that fresh allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded.

Evidence from at least two claimants and statements from the family of Bishop Bell, who died in 1958, were gathered by Detective Superintendent Roy Galloway, and assessed by an ecclesiastical lawyer, Chancellor Timothy Briden, Vicar-General of the Province of Canterbury, who carried out two hearings last July and October.

Chancellor Briden concludes in his report, published on Thursday, that the new allegations were “inconsistent”, “inaccurate”, “unconvincing”, or, in some instances, amounted to “mere rumour”.

This included the evidence of a complainant known as “Alison” (not her real name), who wrote to the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, claiming that Bishop Bell had “fondled her” when she had sat on his lap, aged nine, in the 1940s. In her oral evidence, the report says: “Her attempts to repeat what had been written in the letter displayed, however, a disturbing degree of inconsistency.”

Mr Briden continues: “I am satisfied that Alison has not made her complaint for financial reasons, not as a piece of mischief-making. Her desire has been to support Carol.”

Another 80-year-old witness named as “K” in the report said that his mother had told him that she had seen Bishop Bell “carrying out a sexual act with a man over his Rolls Royce” in 1967. Bishop Bell died in 1958. Apart from this inaccuracy, the report states: “The longer that the statement from K’s mother is analysed, the more implausible it appears.”

The allegations surfaced after the publication of a review conducted by Lord Carlile of the Church of England’s handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against Bishop Bell by a woman known as “Carol” (News, 22 December 2017). The diocese of Chichester had apologised and reached a settlement with Carol two years previously (News, 23 October 2015).

The Carlile review concluded, however, that the Church had “rushed to judgement” when it said that Bishop Bell was responsible for serious abuse. It had also failed in its response to Carol’s original complaint in 1995, and in 2013 when she had written to Archbishop Welby.

The Carlile review triggered fresh allegations, and an investigation was commissioned by Dr Warner in January of last year “in the spirit” of the Carlile review. This was confirmed at the time in a statement from the Church’s National Safeguarding Team, led by Graham Tilby — the “core group” in the Briden ruling.

Questioned during a press briefing on Thursday about the decision to publicise these allegations after the Carlile review had advised against this, a Church House spokesman said that the review had resulted in the raising of “difficult questions” by General Synod members about the handling of allegations against Bishop Bell and the subsequent damage to his reputation.

“Those questions would have been difficult to answer; we did not want to mislead the Synod.”

The Church regretted the “unfortunate timing” of the publication of the review before the February Synod meeting, he said, but it had not been a “conspiracy. It was simply the way events unfolded.” He continued: “The previous matter [allegations made by Carol] were in the public domain. I cannot see how we could have covered up a further investigation [into fresh allegations].”

The spokesman also expressed regret over the handling of Carol’s case (including her feeling of being “besieged” by defenders of Bishop Bell), and the public statement made in 2015 after the settlement was reached. “The statement we made was not sufficiently clear — the level of certainty does not exist to say that either Bishop Bell is not a paedophile or that Carol’s allegations against him are unfounded.”

This was reiterated by Dr Warner in his statement on Thursday: “We have learned that the boundaries of doubt and certainty have to be stated with great care, that the dead and those who are related to them have a right to be represented, and that there must be a balanced assessment of the extent to which it would be in the public interest to announce details of any allegation.

“It became obvious that a more thorough investigation must be made before any public announcement can be considered, and that the level of investigation typically undertaken for settlement of a civil claim is not adequate to justify an announcement. It is now clear that, if an announcement about any person is to be made, it must not imply certainty when we cannot be certain.”

Archbishop Welby said after the Carlile review that “a significant cloud” had been left over the name of Bishop Bell. In his statement on Thursday, however, besides confirming that “nothing of substance” had been added to previous allegations, the Archbishop reiterated that “[Bishop Bell’s] legacy is undoubted and must be upheld.”

He said: “The reputation of Bishop Bell is significant, and I am clear that his memory and the work he did is as of much importance to the Church today as it was in the past. . . I hope that ways will be found to underline his legacy and share the learning from his life with future generations.”

The spokesman for Church House suggested that Chichester Cathedral might “review” its decision to remove Bishop Bell’s name from its grant scheme. It was up to individual institutions to decide whether to reinstate his name on buildings, however. Resignations in the Church over the handling of the case would be “a matter of conscience”.

The Church was to produce further guidance on handling posthumous allegations, he said, and was “keen to hear” the conclusions of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), which is due to produce its final report on the Anglican investigation after the final hearing in July (News, 18 January).

Archbishop Welby apologised “unreservedly and profoundly” for the hurt caused to the surviving “family, colleagues, and supporters” of Bishop Bell for the failures of the Church in handling the allegations. “However, it is still the case that there is a woman who came forward with a serious allegation relating to an historic case of abuse, and this cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. We need to care for her and listen to her voice.”

In an interview with The Spectator published on Thursday, the Archbishop said: “‘It has been a very, very painful process. Not least because Bishop Bell was — is — one of my great heroes.”

Dr Warner also apologised for “how damaging and painful” it had been for all involved in this and other cases in his diocese: “The diocese of Chichester has rightly been held to account for its safeguarding failures of the past — shocking and shaming as they were. We hope that the culture of the diocese has changed.” It remained committed to responding with compassion, he said.

Professor Andrew Chandler, Bishop Bell’s biographer, who has been campaigning to clear Bell’s name, said on Thursday evening that the statements “show that they are clinging to the wreckage of their old position as best they can.

“It is simply self-justification, but it does indicate that they will just maintain for the sake of consistency the views that got them into such trouble in the first place.”

He questioned why, in January of last year, the Church had issued a statement and commissioned a second investigation: “What today has really exposed is the ridiculousness of what has been going on, and the foolishness of people who have real power in the Church. . .

“Many people will say that the Church was trying to control, or retrieve control, of the narrative of Lord Carlile, to shut down the critics, and create a doubt in the public mind that Bell might be a serial offender of some kind.

“They have nothing to hide behind now. It looks like a highly calculating, politicised outfit indeed.”

While parts of the Archbishop’s statement were “meaningful, welcome, and appropriate”, the reference to the Church’s “dilemma” in weighing up a reputation against a serious allegation did not exist, Professor Chandler argued.

“There is no dilemma. It is quite extraordinary as part of pastoral practice, let alone legal practice, to maintain that taking somebody seriously involves believing somebody. . . The problem is that the various [church] establishments invested a great deal in this, and it is difficult to climb down. . .

“If they are going to survive in office with any credibility at all, they [will] have to think very hard [as to how to] win back the trust that has been so inexorably lost.”

The “enormous” damage to Bishop Bell’s reputation had been inflicted by the very people who should have looked after it, Professor Chandler concluded. “The real figure of Bishop Bell has never been involved. His name has just been symbolic of a great social dread, and an established institution colluded with [this dread] in search of self-justification.”

Read more from Andrew Chandler on our comment pages, and read how the story was covered in the national press, here.

You can find the full report and statements the Church of England website.

Full statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury:

I apologise unreservedly for the mistakes made in the process surrounding the handling of the original allegation against Bishop George Bell. The reputation of Bishop Bell is significant, and I am clear that his memory and the work he did is of as much importance to the Church today as it was in the past. I recognise this has been an extremely difficult period for all concerned and I apologise equally to all those who have come forward and shared stories of abuse where we have not responded well.

An allegation against the late Bishop George Bell, originally brought in 1995, was made again in 2013 in the context of a growing awareness of how institutions respond to safeguarding cases. A review carried out by Lord Carlile into how the Church of England handled the case concerning Bishop Bell made a significant number of recommendations, and the Church of England accepted almost all of these.

At the end of 2017 several people came forward with further, fresh information following the Carlile review, and after a thorough, independent investigation, nothing of substance has been added to what has previously been alleged.

A statement from the National Safeguarding Team explains the processes involved in reaching this latest decision more fully.

The Church’s dilemma has been to weigh up the reputation of a highly esteemed bishop who died over 60 years ago alongside a serious allegation. We did not manage our response to the original allegation with the consistency, clarity or accountability that meets the high standards rightly demanded of us. I recognise the hurt that has been done as a consequence. This was especially painful for Bishop Bell’s surviving relatives, colleagues and supporters, and to the vast number of people who looked up to him as a remarkable role model, not only in the Diocese of Chichester but across the United Kingdom and globally. I apologise profoundly and unconditionally for the hurt caused to these people by the failures in parts of the process and take responsibility for this failure.

However, it is still the case that there is a woman who came forward with a serious allegation relating to an historic case of abuse and this cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. We need to care for her and listen to her voice.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has already questioned the Church of England over its response to the Bishop Bell case and the review by Lord Carlile. We expect that their report on our hearings will address further the complex issues that have been raised and will result in a more informed, confident, just and sensitive handling of allegations of abuse by the church in the future. We have apologised, and will continue to do so, for our poor response to those brave enough to come forward, while acknowledging that this will not take away the effects of the abuse.

This very difficult issue therefore leaves the Church with an impossible dilemma which I hope people with different perspectives on it will try to understand.

Finally, I want to make it very clear that Bishop George Bell is one of the most important figures in the history of the Church of England in the 20th century and his legacy is undoubted and must be upheld. His prophetic work for peace and his relationship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer are only two of the many ways in which his legacy is of great significance to us in the Church and we must go on learning from what he has given to us. I hope that ways will be found to underline his legacy and share the learning from his life with future generations.

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