carlile report george bell
Church of England

How has the Church of England failed to grasp the core finding of the Carlile Report, that a superficially ‘truthful’ complainant might be an unreliable historian of fact?

I don’t imagine there are many members of the House of Bishops who are aficionados of American sports, but some might relate to the words of ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.” Jazz trumpeter Miles Davies had a similar word of advice for those who aspired to emulate his genius: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And if the point is still elusive, consider Michelangelo surveying a block of Carrara marble and thinking, “There’s a Pièta in there somewhere.”

These thoughts came to mind while considering how people have received the Carlile Report, and how they are reading this fascinating document. We will not often get insight how these things are managed at a national level. One can usefully look at how the expert reports of Dr Freedman and Professor Maden were received by the Core Group, which was set up to determine George Bell’s guilt or innocence. Suffice it to say there were no Michelangelos present.

We have previously looked at the major points from the report, but the real significance of Lord Carlile’s work was spectacularly missed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other bishops as they responded to it, so let’s spell it out more plainly.

The expert reports were from highly competent psychiatrists. Dr Judith Freedman was commissioned on behalf of ‘Carol’, but a second independent opinion was sought from Professor Anthony Maden. I have every confidence that there was substantial agreement between the two, for if not, I am sure Lord Carlile would have told us. But let’s take a look at what is not there – let’s skate to where the action needs to be.

When you first begin working in the field of abuse and risk assessment, you tend to be deferential towards experts, and then familiarity, confidence, and competence grows. The handling of the reports by the Core Group and the Church of England displays none of the necessary hallmarks of expertise.

I always maintained a healthy respect for experts – I kept it on the shelf right next to my healthy disrespect for experts. You learn with experience to ask questions, not to be afraid to look foolish, to contrast reports and to challenge. When a report arrives you have to be aware of everything the expert feels able to say to say, and sometimes you move on to ask what the expert may not want to say. That is when you skate towards where a report may not yet be going – but needs to. It can be surprisingly productive.

The Core Group’s lawyer presented a number of direct questions of their expert. As previously noted, the Professor refused to answer whether he believed or disbelieved the complainant because that is simply not a proper question for an expert. But look what happened next. The summary of Professor Maden’s opinion begins with a blunt statement of unmistakable clarity: “The delays in reporting in this case are exceptional. Memory is not reliable over such long periods of time and the only way to establish that the allegations are true would be through corroborating evidence.”

Stop there. There is no corroborating evidence – not a shred. Everybody already knew that. His opinion could have closed there, for everything thereafter is is either merely explanatory, or protecting his professional reputation from any suggestion of incompleteness or bias in the fulfilment of his professional duties.

To cover his back, he opines: “I found the Claimant to be an apparently straightforward woman of good character. I have no reason to believe that the material allegations are a conscious fabrication.”

Yet the operative words here are ‘apparently’ and ‘conscious’. Both are words of qualification, not endorsement. The alternative – ‘unconscious fabrification’ – is not only still in play, but immediately afterwards it is both explained and evidenced. In fact, on p47 of the report, he devotes no fewer than 80 lines to setting out the academic context of false memory, answering and contextualising a question which he was not even asked to consider in his letter of instruction. Why do you think he might feel the need to do that?

More importantly, he does not simply set out the theoretical matrix; he looks at the facts of the case, applies the theory to those facts, and invites ‘The Court ‘ (ie the Core Group) to draw the only conclusion that his logic allows. Yet he leaves nothing to chance. Not content with bringing false memory to the table, he brings a second detonation to the complacency encapsulated in the lazy ‘victim must be believed‘ narrative beloved and defended by the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team, right up until the week after Lord Carlile’s report hit their desks.

He explains the concept of ‘retrospective re-attribution’, and not content with talking the talk, he walks the walk and again applies the theory to the facts of this specific case:

Another problem with civil claims made so long after the material events is that they are an invitation to engage in a process of retrospective re-attribution. It is a natural tendency to look for meaning in one’s life and to impose meaning on events if necessary or helpful for one reason or another. One looks back at one’s life and re-interprets events, attaching to them a significance they did not have before and that they may not deserve. It is a particularly tempting prospect when things go wrong in one’s life. It can be even more tempting if the re-attribution leads to the responsibility for any problems being attached to others rather than to one’s own decisions. It is also a process in which anybody can engage.

So there was not one major cause for doubt within the psychiatric evidence, but two.

There is a superficially final puzzling sentence at the end of the section quoted by Lord Carlile: “In an attempt to assist the Court, for the purposes of diagnosis I assume the Court finds the Claimant was abused as she now alleges.” Where that idea goes we never know: Lord Carlile ends the quotation of Professor Maden there. That doesn’t worry me. To be comprehensive, experts routinely give the alternative possibility, but it’s never that hard to work out where the weight of the argument lies. Lord Carlile knows. He makes that plain by that which he chooses to place in the public domain.

It is worth noting here that Professor Maden does not ‘diagnose’ false memory, but there is an important reason for this: psychiatrists work within strict professional guidelines. In order to make a diagnosis, they have to identify a specifically permitted condition evidenced by pre-determined criteria internationally agreed. In the case of false memory, while doctors and lawyers alike agree that the phenomenon exists, there is as yet no agreed set of traits which, identified together in a variety of combinations, constitute a reliable diagnosis. So for now all that any psychiatrist can do is to flag up a warning to look at the facts with care, which is precisely what we see here. There is no ‘diagnosis’ because there are, as yet, no agreed criteria.

Both Professor Maden and Lord Carlile are experts in a field that needs high expertise. Both met the complainant. Both listened. Both were at pains to say that it is not within their terms of reference to pronounce whether they believe her or not. Both leave her with some dignity whilst handling with great sensitivity certain matters which she would inevitably find distressing. Yet both of their expert reports end in the same fashion. It’s almost as if they are hinting that a superficially ‘truthful’ complainant might be an unreliable historian of fact.

Like a highly-skilled football midfielder in action, they play a pass with slide-rule precision, in the plain expectation that the recipient has the basic skill to apply a tap in. On both occasions, the Church of England contrives to miss spectacularly.

Given the proper parameters within which they necessarily work professionally, there is only so much that any expert can do to help. Unfortunately for them, neither was dealing with a recipient with core competency in how these things are done. Professor Maden tried, and then Lord Carlile re-highlighted his views. This part of the Carlile Report is the only part of the evidence that he lifts from the otherwise confidential reports into Carol’s sad life history. In any other circumstances these heaviest of hints might have been appreciated and acted upon, but it wasn’t to be.

The prophet Jeremiah comes to mind: ‘Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not.’

Yet all this has a very real and practical implication for all clergy at this current time. Last February, against the advice of a number of professionals in the field, General Synod passed the new Clergy Risk Assessment regulations without waiting to see the full scheme which would tell us who would be asked to assess those under suspicion, or the terms under which the assessors would operate.

As one of the few people in the chamber who has actually commissioned such assessments, I warned that instructing experts, knowing who to ask, what to ask, and interpreting what comes back, is not as straightforward as is may seem. The Bell case illustrates those concerns perfectly. A group which included the Chair of the National Safeguarding Committee, the head of the National Safeguarding Team, two Safeguarding Officers, and a solicitor chosen by Church House, all received a report from an expert and failed to understand it or decode its core message. This, in the case of one of the most revered figures of the Church of the 20th century.

If I were a member of clergy I would be looking at this case and asking myself a simple question. Do I trust these people to get it right if I am unjustly accused? If you do not, you might care to lobby your General Synod representatives to revisit that Risk Assessment scheme.