“The George Bell case represents the perfect storm from which injustice emerges. We had a church fearful and sensitive to allegations that it might be covering up abuse, a plausible complainant, a long dead Bishop with no living heirs, and a church culture which had abandoned the presumption of innocence in favour of asserting that all complainants are entitled to be believed.”
During the campaign to secure a review of the case of Bishop George Bell, I summarised the origins of the latest sorry story to hit the Church of England in the above terms, but there was one other factor that I did not include because I needed the endorsement of a report before I made it. Now that we have the Report from Lord Carlile, it clearly confirms that there was a fundamental failure of the church as it went about investigating and evaluating the facts before it. The investigation was so poor that it not only did not do justice – it could not do justice.
The Core Group
The problem centres round the assembly of a ‘Core Group’ which, as a former Child Protection Lawyer, is very familiar to me. Such a body is regularly brought together to manage the cases of children suspected of having suffered or being likely to have suffered significant harm, and they routinely gather and evaluate the evidence of whether a child has been abused, and then consider what should be done about it. The real experts in Core Group management are local authority Children’s Services lawyers, who can attend several such meetings every month.
When the Bell story first broke, his defenders asked about the processes by which the Core Group had reached its conclusions. The Church of England instantly covered its processes in a cloak of secrecy. Now we know why.
Ideally such a group, set up to determine whether a set of historic allegations are true, would include those with the knowledge or skills to shape and evaluate of the type of problems which such cases routinely present. At para. 148 of his report, Lord Carlile sets out what might be expected of the group.
But in the case of George Bell, the church appointed a group of people set out in para. 149 to undertake the work. They include four bishops, a communications officer, a solicitor “with particular experience in the areas of alternative uses for church sites, telecommunications installations in churches and acquisition and disposal of ecclesiastical property”, another solicitor “specialising in eccelesiastical educational and charity law”, and a finance director. Significant expertise in historic abuse cases was provided by a solicitor who frequently advises the church’s insurers EIG. Though she was a key player, curiously she was not formally a member of the group. If there was a reason for this anomaly, it has not been disclosed and should be. A diocesan registrar (substituted) and two Safeguarding officers brought experience to the table.
There is nothing wrong with non-specialists determining facts: juries do this every day of the week. They do it, however, within a highly structured context, with expert adversarial lawyers presenting the rival cases, and a judge to maintain balance and help explain complexities.
Whatever expertise was present in this Core Group, it did not save the process from error, partly because not everybody attended all the meetings, but more importantly because not everybody received all the material under consideration. It did not help that nobody asked key questions.
Para. 155 records that the priority was protecting the church: no method for ensuring fairness to the deceased accused was discussed; they accepted ‘Carol’ told the truth, referring to her as ‘victim’ throughout (though determining that status was the very point of their meeting). There was no discussion of investigating the truth, or of the purpose of the Statute of Limitations – “It operates to prevent unfairness, especially in cases where the opportunity to defend has been completely dissipated by the passage of time, and where the Claimant was long aware of the potential for a claim for compensation,” explains Lord Carlile.
No consideration was ever given to appointing somebody charged with representing the interests of the long dead Bishop.
During the course of the Core Group meetings, there was inadequate continuity. By the second meeting recorded at para. 159, “There was no discussion whatsoever of the need to ensure the justice of the case by examining the facts from Bishop Bell’s standpoint. This issue seems to have been totally abandoned”, and “In reality, any notion of a balanced investigation had been abandoned. Certainly no steps to that end were taken, other than the decision to approach a forensic psychiatrist.”
The Psychiatric Reports
The Claimant’s lawyer submitted such a report, and the Core Group commissioned a separate one. Why the common practice of a jointly commissioned report on an agreed letter of instruction was not adopted is not addressed by Lord Carlile, which is a shame. The hammering out of such a letter with agreed questions to an expert is, in my experience, one of the most useful stages in any investigation. It forces one to look at the entire body of evidence; to consider ‘What don’t we know?’, and then to find the experts who can help to answer the begging questions. Fortunately, that expert was Professor Maden.
The letter of instruction was prepared by the external solicitor who had experience, but who was not formally a member of the Core Group.
The opening question to the Psychiatrist betrays the lameness of the process: “Do you in your opinion believe that the abuse occurred?” Had I proposed such a question to my former colleagues, I would have been laughed out of the robing room of the court where so many of such letters are negotiated. That was the fundamental question for the Core Group to determine, not an expert. There is no expert on whether someone is telling the truth. A psychiatrist can help with mental health considerations which might impact on credibility, but his or her expertise cannot meaningfully contribute to the question of whether a person is truthful or not. Persons with perfect mental health can still not tell the truth – you don’t need a psychiatrist to tell you that.
The Psychiatrist felt the embarrassing need to remind them: “The facts are for the Court to determine. I do not believe that psychiatric or other expert evidence is likely to be of further assistance in establishing whether or not these allegations are true.”
Worse, although not specifically asked (?!), he addresses the issue of false memory. Para. 178 states: “The Claimant strikes me as a sympathetic and in many ways admirable woman. She does not suffer from a personality disorder. I have no doubt that she is sincere in her beliefs. Nevertheless it remains my view that the possibility of false memories in this case cannot be excluded.”
To summarise, the letter of instruction began with a question that did not need to be asked, and did not ask the question which did (being ‘Is false memory an issue?’). It is a decidedly sub-par document, and it was the key to the case.
The Press Release
At this point it is appropriate to digress and take a brief look at the Church of England’s Press Release of 2016, which stated: “The settlement followed a thorough pre-litigation process during which further investigations into the claim took place including the commissioning of expert independent reports. None of those reports found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim.”
If you read that Statement in juxtaposition to what Professor Maden wrote in his report, it is hard to reconcile them. The Press Release seems to be either thoroughly incompetent or an institutionally PR-driven lie. It was probably the former.
When Maden’s report arrived, not everyone was present at the next meeting, and so not everyone saw it. Most only received a summary, and that summary was not accurate. Those who knew the truth never saw fit to correct the grossly misleading picture presented to the public.
The wording of the Press Release implies overwhelming certainty; you would never have guessed from that document that the Core Group was divided in its opinion. We now know that the acceptance of the claim by the Core Group was not unanimous (para. 188).
Further, Lord Carlile reports at para. 172 of “an unacceptable change in membership of the Group, given their responsibility and the requirement for consistency. Factual as well as tactical and procedural decisions were required of the Group, and attendance should have been a priority.”
And para. 181: “Given the comments of Professor Maden cited above, had there been full knowledge of them in the Group, my expectation would have been that the majority would have steered back towards a fuller evidential investigation of the claim. This is an important example of what, earlier in this review, I called ‘oversteer’.”
Thereafter, the Core Group, having resolved by majority decision that the accusations were true, managed the quantification of damages which need not concern us.
But para 205 is even more concerning. Knowing that journalist Peter Hitchens held a special interest in the case, it was suggested that some academic research should be sought: “they needed a report or academic journal article supporting the position that ‘an offender like GB’ was very likely to reoffend.” That is just appalling. They wanted to create a smokescreen of propensity in the absence of evidence. Is this really how Church House operates?
The Church of England’s response to the Carlile Report
The Archbishop of Canterbury and two of his colleagues have issued statements which implicitly reaffirm the conclusion that the complainant ‘Carol’ is to be believed despite the majority belief having being founded on very poor process; despite the expert expressing doubts, and despite not everyone charged with making the decision being convinced.
Archbishop Justin writes: “Lord Carlile does not seek to say whether George Bell was in fact responsible for the acts about which the complaint was made.” That is factually correct. What it does not make sufficiently clear, however, is that Lord Carlile does not do so because the church specifically did not permit him to do so under the terms of reference which it defined at the outset of his investigation. Lord Carlile writes at para. 10 of the report: “I was asked to look at the way in which the Church of England treated these allegations. As a result, I have considered the process; it was not part of my task to consider the truth of the allegations and I have not done so.”
Already the George Bell Group has issued a robust challenge to the statements put out on behalf of the Church of England, and in his media interviews Lord Carlile chose to highlight that the church was, from the outset and throughout its processes, guilty of “over-steer” in how it handled evidence. He also referred to “pre-conceptions – not necessarily in Bishop Bell’s favour”. This is an elegant way of putting a very ugly truth: there was endemic bias which led to sloppy process, insufficiently robust analysis, and weak case management.
The detailed mistakes
Lord Carlile is at pains to say that those acting on behalf of the church through its investigating Core Group acted in good faith, but that cannot hide the many weaknesses and prejudices that led to an unjust and unsupportable conclusion. The Report has two sections where those failures are listed. At para. 239, a senior lawyer made the following criticisms which Lord Carlile adopted:
The Church does not challenge Carol’s belief in her story. The question is whether others should have believed it.
Any subsequent attempts, post-announcement, by the Church to leave the impression that they were not convinced by Carol were unsustainable given the statement of the 22 October 2015.
The reference to potential arrest left the false impression that arrest could be equated with guilt.
The use of the term ‘survivor’ for Carol contained the clear inference that the case against Bishop Bell was proved.
In effect, the Church reversed the burden of proof without taking real steps for the case for Bishop Bell to be developed and investigated.
There was nothing that could really be described as any inquiry into or investigation of the facts.
The failure to find and interview Canon Carey was a serious deficiency, given that he had lived and worked in the Bishop’s Palace at the material time.
The fact that the post-statement publicity has flushed out no other complaints is significant.
At para. 254, Lord Carlile summarises his criticism of the work of the Core Group which the church assembled to handle the investigation:
The core group was set up in an unplanned way with neither terms of reference nor any clear direction as to how it would operate. As a result, it became a confused and unstructured process, as several members confirmed.
Some members explicitly made it clear to me that they had no coherent notion of their roles or what was expected of them.
There was no consideration of the need for consistency of attendance or membership.
The members did not all see the same documents, nor all the documents relevant to their task.
There was no organised or valuable inquiry or investigation into the merits of the allegations, and the standpoint of Bishop Bell was never given parity or proportionality.
Indeed, the clear impression left is that the process was predicated on his guilt of what Carol alleged.
Despite some reservations, the process largely assumed the eventual public release of Bishop Bell’s name, and a summary of the alleged circumstances.
There was no focus on any special issues arising from the fact that Bishop Bell died in 1958.
There was no real attempt to inform any surviving member of his family. No criminal law expert was instructed to be part of nor to advise the group. It was not fully clear that the psychiatrists respectively were instructed on a different basis.
The discussion and approval of the apology letter and media statement was poorly structured and based on a false premise that disclosure was inevitable.
There was inadequate consideration of matters arising in this particular case that might have justified denying liability altogether, including the issue of the time bar for a claim.
There was inadequate consideration of matters arising in this particular case that might have justified a settlement of Carol’s claim on the basis of litigation risk, with a confidentiality clause including repayment for breach.
There is one possibility that Lord Carlile does not consider: it seems to me that the Church of England could, with fairness and integrity, have formulated its compensation terms on the basis that its historic negligence had significantly deprived Carol of the possibility of receiving justice.
Be fair to the Diocese of Chichester
This case is a failure of the Established Church, and specifically of Church House and Lambeth Palace, yet it will always be associated with the Diocese of Chichester. It would be unfair were we not to highlight para. 183:
Gabrielle Higgins (Diocesan Secretary)… pointed out that there had been no other allegations: Mr Tilby responded that there might be only a single victim. Ms. Higgins emphasised Carol’s very young age at the time complained of, the possibility of false memory, and the possible contradiction between Carol saying to Professor Maden that Bishop Bell told her to tell nobody, but that she had told (the person she had visited). In Ms. Higgins’s view, false memory could be an issue; and she reported that the Bishop of Chichester was uncomfortable about accepting the claim.
It is a pity that their concerns did not prevail. The vote was not unanimous. Nobody told us that.
The misuse of confidentiality
Subsequently, Church House shrouded the process in secrecy, declaring that nothing could be said about how the decisions were made “for legal reasons”. At the outset, I identified the absurd fiction that because everything cannot be said, nothing can be said. Quite evidently, that was always nonsense on stilts: one only has to consider how much Lord Carlile has been able to tell us without in any way compromising Carol’s anonymity. Church House clearly thought (and treated us as though) we were stupid, and this kind of imperious contempt for the intelligence of others’ is deep-rooted within the higher echelons of the institution. It is constantly complained of by the victims who talk to me.
The need for transparency
From the outset, the need for a review of the substance of the case was resisted, and then the process was dragged out. A comprehensive review was only finally conceded immediately before a debate was timetabled in the House of Lords, which confirmed that some heavyweight critics were stepping into the fray. A review was announced two days before the General Synod met, but only after the time for submitting questions had passed. The church is still not transparent, and resists accountability by playing games. Statements after reviews are not enough.
Time and again in the area of Safeguarding and victim care, the Church of England is shown to be incompetent, obstructive, evasive and slow. There is an elitist attitude, essentially that Church House knows best. The Carlile Report is important because it discloses that such confidence is utterly misconceived. Eyebrows were raised when, adapting the words of Irish playwright Brendan Behan, I expressed the frustration of the informed critics seeking details of the independent review, telling Synod: “Things are rarely so dire that they cannot be made worse by a Bishops’ cover-up.”
We asked for a meaningful review. It was strongly resisted, but now have it we should be gracious and welcoming. The church took the difficult but necessary first step, and now the hard work begins. General Synod needs to grapple with the full implications of the Carlile Report, which are substantial. The work may begin with this Report, but intervening failures and new stories tell us that the problems are deep-seated and not limited to this one case.
The need for meaningful accountability
What cannot happen is a meek acceptance of bland assurances that ‘lessons have been learnt and protocols adjusted’, which seems to be the initial anodyne response. Lord Carlile has lifted the veil on the poor practice at the heart of the Church of England’s Safeguarding culture. If you talk to living victims of institutional incompetence, many of whose abuses have been established in the criminal courts, you will hear that this case is far from unrepresentative of the church’s deficiencies and poor practice.
The Carlile Report is deeply troubling, yet things are getting worse. In July 2016, I raised a question seeking an assurance that we would discuss the Report at the February 2018 Synod. The reply was formal: “The House of Bishops is accountable for Safeguarding in the Church of England.”
The two keys questions which follow from this terse response are:
1) To whom are the Bishops accountable if not to the General Synod?
2) How can General Synod possibly do its job of holding the House of Bishops to account if a Safeguarding debate does not feature in any substantial form on the Synod’s agenda?
After immense pressure, we made some progress last week when the February Synod agenda included time to engage in a Q&A session. There is a deep irony in the idea that the church’s Safeguarding establishment will be offering ‘answers’. After the Carlile Report, it might be more appropriate for a little humility to be in evidence, and extensive time made available so that those members of Synod who have experience and knowledge in this field might offer their thoughts on the George Bell saga, which I fear is just the tip of the iceberg of inadequacy.
When you end up apologising to both the Accused and the Complainant for your institutional incompetence, it is time for a fundamental debate about what is wrong at the highest levels of the Church of England.
Yet now we see our Bishops picking a fight with Lord Carlile on the applicability of transparency in special cases. One is bound to suggest that he is not the one who needs lectures on the subject, and that our church leadership is not perhaps best placed to deliver them. I am all for the zeal of the convert, but there are many within Church House and Lambeth Palace who need such instruction more urgently than does one of the country’s leading lawyers, who is simply but patiently explaining why and where they are wrong. Victims of abuse will see these expressions of concern for transparency to be expedient rather than heartfelt. Turning that culture around is a significant burden of work, but one which each and every member of the General Synod of the Church of England must now shoulder in order to ensure greater truth and a better justice.
To adapt the words of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer: ‘Rend your hearts, not your policy documents.’