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No significant cloud over Bishop George Bell: ‘I was wrong’ says Archbishop Welby

17 November 2021

Howard Coster

Bishop George Bell, portrayed in 1953

Bishop George Bell, portrayed in 1953

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has retracted his statement made in 2017 that there remained a “significant cloud” over the name of George Bell, a former Bishop of Chichester, after years of pressure from campaigners (News, 26 January 2018).

In 2015, Bishop Bell, who died in 1958, was accused of sexually abusing a young girl in the 1950s, and this was the conclusion of a subsequent Church-led investigation into the allegations brought by a woman named Carol, and who was later compensated and received an apology (News, 30 October 2015). An independent review by Lord Carlile in 2017, however, concluded that the Church had “rushed to judgement” in its condemnation of Bishop Bell, and was highly critical of its decision to name him in a case of serious abuse without concrete evidence (News, 22 December 2017).

Despite this, the Archbishop did not apologise at the time, but said instead: “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.”

In 2018, the parallel investigation by Sussex Police was subsequently closed for lack of evidence (News, 27 April 2018). In 2019, after further pressure from campaigners, including members of the Bell Society, the Archbishop apologised for “mistakes” made in the handling of the case, but again refused to retract his “significant cloud” remarks (News, 1 February 2019).

In a new statement published on Wednesday morning, Archbishop Welby said: “What I say today that is new and should have been said sooner is this: I do not consider there to be a ‘significant cloud’ over Bishop George Bell’s name.

“Previously I refused to retract that statement and I was wrong to do so. I took that view because of the importance we rightly place on listening to those who come forward with allegations of abuse, and the duty of care we owe to them. But we also owe a duty of care to those who are accused. I apologise for the hurt that my refusal to retract that statement has caused to Bishop Bell’s surviving relatives, colleagues and longstanding supporters. They have all raised this issue, often powerfully, and I have recognised my error as a result of their advocacy.”

His statement pointed to the dramatic increase in allegations of church-related abuse over the past 30 years, much of which concerned non-recent cases.

“As a society we have awoken, albeit shamefully late, to the insidious nature of abusers and the profound damage caused by abuse of all types. We have learned of the way that such acts of profound evil and cruelty are committed in places of trust and vulnerability. Each time we have looked away, made excuses, or failed to act, we have sinned beyond measure — and the Church is on a journey of thoroughgoing repentance, not just through words, but in all the practical measures we have taken and are putting in place to protect the most vulnerable among us and bring abusers to justice.”

He continued: “This is why the posthumous allegations made against Bishop George Bell were taken seriously and investigated fully. I do not apologise for that, but as I have said before, 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 recognised the hurt that has been done as a consequence, and I have apologised unreservedly for the mistakes made in this process.”

Bishop Bell, he said, “was and remains one of the most courageous, distinguished Anglican bishops of the past century, committed to the peace and hope of Jesus Christ in a time of conflict and war. The debt owed to him extends far beyond the Church that he served and is one that we share as a society. I am delighted that the statue to him that was planned will be erected on the west front of Canterbury Cathedral, where he served as a Canon, as soon as the extensive repair and maintenance works are complete.

“This does not detract from my commitment to and support for victims and survivors of abuse and especially the person abused in this case. All allegations must be taken seriously. We must remain a Church which strives for openness, transparency, care, and honesty in our dealings with sexual abuse. This includes, with paramount importance, instances where we have failed.”

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said: “I greatly welcome Archbishop Justin Welby’s statement on Bishop George Bell.  It is both humble and courageous, reminding us that these virtues, evident in George Bell himself, do still surface in the Church of England of our own time.”

Dr Andrew Chandler, Professor in Modern History at the University of Chichester, commented on Thursday: “It is an imperfect but sincere and important statement which can only be welcomed after such a long interval. It is now for those many senior figures across the Church of England who facilitated (not least financially), promoted, or justified the whole affair to look to themselves.”

He continued: “If they cannot now say and do the right things, many people will surely ask if they should there at all. The truth is that in his immense and costly safeguarding empire, Archbishop Welby has placed enormous power in the hands of men and women who should never have been given such authority to do so much harm.”

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