The Report from Lord Carlile about the George Bell case is due out today. It is expected to say that the process through which George Bell, the distinguished former Bishop of Chichester, was deemed guilty of child abuse was deeply flawed. One does not know whether to be pleased or sad from this outcome. On the plus side it is probable that the reputation of George Bell will be eventually salvaged from this hasty and, by all accounts, incompetent investigation. The George Bell Group has provided a great deal of information in their work of defending Bell. They spoke to witnesses alive at the time and it has been suggested that the main witness, being then a child, could well have been confused as to who her abuser was. There was also the testimony of George Bell’s biographer, Andrew Chandler. He was never consulted but he had definitive evidence to show that George Bell was abroad at the time when one of the episodes of abuse was said to have taken place. The review of all this evidence is for the future. Meanwhile we can celebrate this probability that George Bell’s name will be eventually vindicated. I have a personal memory of the man himself. Contrary to what some reports have indicated, Bell spent the last few months of his life in Canterbury. He had been Dean of Canterbury in the 1930s and he returned there to die. Every day he would walk from his home in in Burgate in Canterbury and we would watch him with his distinctive walk. We knew him, not as a retired Bishop, but as a former Dean.
The Lord Carlile report will confirm for the Press as well as for its well-wishers that we cannot trust the Church of England to manage this task of child protection without help. In what appears to have been an attempt at transparency and openness, the Church seems to have poured its venom on the wrong man. In contrast to this, the Church has often defended living perpetrators in their attempt to defend the institution. Someone made the calculation (perhaps the Report will make it clear who it was) that if money was paid out to Bell’s alleged victim and an apology made, then the church would enhance its reputation for good practice. In fact, this decision had appalling implications. Not only was it, as we will see today, an appalling abuse of process but also the besmirching of one of the very few 20th-century heroes of the Anglican Church. When an individual, like George Bell attains the status of having their own day in the Church of England calendar, you question their posthumous reputation only with very strong evidence. History does have to rewritten from time to time but one does not destroy an Anglican ‘saint’ without very good cause. Here the evidence of wrong doing was apparently extremely weak.
Gilo’s case against the Archbishops and their advisers will be strengthened by Lord Carlile’s report. It is quite clear that a decision to pay money to the alleged victim of George Bell was a solution thought up by legal minds. An action that speaks about liability and compensation comes out of the world of legal thinking backed up by insurance interests. Clearheaded pastoral care for individuals who may have suffered should surely be a first priority. When the current Bishop of Chichester apologised to the woman victim, ‘Carol’, for what his predecessor had allegedly done, we were supposed to see pastoral sensitivity at work. What we in fact saw was a planned calculated gesture. The cynics among us might suggest this was planned and controlled by mysterious people in the background who were trying to ‘manage’ the public face of the church. These were no doubt the same people that Gilo was up against when his own complaint against the Church was being determined. It would be interesting to know about all the meetings the Bishop of Chichester had with lawyers, insurance companies and his fellow bishops prior to this apology. Whether the Carlile report will unpack the process when it comes out today I have no idea. Clearly things went wrong at many stages.
It is ironic that the one diocese that is to be examined by the Independent Inquiry on Child Abuse is the Diocese of Chichester. The irony lies in the fact that one probably innocent Bishop of Chichester has had to suffer damage to his reputation through a flawed investigation. Other more recent bishops in that diocese have been allowed to abuse children or at any cast a blind eye to such abuse. Chichester is thus already a byword for how the church can get it so wrong in this area of safeguarding. Let us hope and pray that the mistakes and tragedies of that part of the country are not replicated elsewhere. May it provoke a determination in other dioceses throughout the UK to get things right. One day we hope that the young and the weak in our society may always find in our churches a place of safety and care.