The Archbishop of Canterbury has placed on record his refusal to reconsider his verdict on Bishop Bell. I do not have to rehearse for my readers all the aspects of this story. This contained the accusation that the eminent and saintly Anglican Bishop of Chichester abused a young girl in the late 1940s and early 50s. The story has now moved firmly into 2018. It seems that our Archbishop is refusing to consider the opinion of a variety of eminent historians and legal experts who have examined the details of the case against the Bishop who died in 1958. (I was present at his funeral!) The legal opinion is that no court would or could convict Bishop Bell on the evidence set out by the original internal church enquiry.
This post does not want to rehash all the arguments which were used by Lord Carlile in his Report to show that the original church enquiry was badly handled. One suspects that a readiness to place a cloud of guilt over the saintly Bishop may have been in reaction to the fact that another former Bishop in the Diocese of Chichester had then been recently imprisoned for his betrayal of the church. I am speaking about Bishop Peter Ball. For the Archbishop even to have mentioned the Ball case in the same statement as the one talking about Bishop Bell is unwarranted. Bishop Ball was not guilty of just one single lapse into sexual crime. The police investigation uncovered a pattern of sociopathic behaviour over many years. Rumour and speculation also had followed him around. At least one diocese refused to consider his nomination as its bishop. Bishop Bell on the other hand, even if he had been guilty of an offence against a small girl, and massive doubts remain, did not leave any trace of gossip or scandal behind him. Among the new contributors to the debate are a group of men who were choristers at Chichester Cathedral in the relevant years. Some of them had experienced sexual abuse and thus could be said to be sensitised to the proclivities of any wayward adults around them. They detected nothing in Bishop Bell – indeed they had the highest respect and affection for him. This testimony must be added to all the other evidence that is suggestive of his innocence of the charges. Leaving a cloud of suspicion over Bishop Bell, as the Archbishop is doing, is unjust and goes against the facts as we have them.
What is going on when an Archbishop accuses a respected deceased churchman of a terrible crime? Here I am moving into the realm of speculation. One suggestion that has been made is that the Archbishop is privy to as yet unpublicised information on the case. This, on the face of it, seems unlikely. What is more probable is that a group of senior churchmen within the Church of England are beginning to recognise the vast scale of the problem of sexual abuse by church leaders and much of this information is yet to come out. Being open and transparent about this single case may be thought to show a new flexibility in dealing with this kind of problem. In his statement the Archbishop also refers to people that he respected who turned out to be paedophiles. As he puts it ‘the experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic’. One of these ‘respected’ individuals may of course be the well-known John Smyth who beat boys connected with the Iwerne camps. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I have a source that suggests that the church is in the process of trying to dampen down sex scandals all over the country. After ignoring these scandals for a long time, perhaps the church, by demonstrating an openness and transparency, wants to be seen to admit historic failure in this area. This tactic is misconceived. The Archbishop’s position and that of his advisors would appear to be one of panic. What I fear is that the current situation is of such magnitude that the powers that be feel that they no longer have control over it. I also surmise that the church is dreading the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse when it hears evidence about the Diocese of Chichester in March. Independence is a necessary ingredient for keeping large institutions to account. The Church has historically never had to face such scrutiny. Now it is facing such examination by the Inquiry it is in danger of being shattered by an iceberg of past scandal and coverups.
Whatever the truth of the current situation, the Archbishop’s statement, which refused to lift the cloud of suspicion from Bishop Bell, is highly worrying. It indirectly points to an institution in a severe state of crisis. It also suggests a level of stress in an individual, the Archbishop, that has rendered him unable to produce the kind of calm reflective leadership that is required. The statement written by the Archbishop was evidently not the product of his thinking alone. It represents the considered wisdom of a group of advisers and consultants. Only time will tell what he and they sought to gain by besmirching the memory of a hallowed Bishop who did so much for the church in his day.
The Bishop Bell story is not over. His supporters will continue to protest his innocence. Their motivation will not be reasons of partisanship. They will continue to appeal to solid historical and legal arguments. The claim that continues to cast a shadow over Bishop Bell’s reputation seems to reflect the position of senior members of an institution in a state of profound corporate panic. What they are panicking about has nothing to do with what may have happened nearly 70 years ago in Chichester. It may simply be an attempt to ward off a tsunami of allegations that keep erupting today and these have the power to damage and weaken our national church.