Church of England

Bishop George Bell and the tyranny of paedomania


Horrible, totalitarian things are happening. George Bell House in Chichester has been renamed 4 Canon Lane, and a black bin-liner has been taped over the brass plaque to hide the fact of what it used to be called. The Bishop Luffa School in Chichester has decided to rename its own Bell House, and Eastbourne’s Bishop Bell School looks set to follow suit. George Bell, former Bishop of Chichester, is being unpersoned and expunged from all memory. For those who knew him, it is disquieting. For everyone who cares about justice and due process, it is time to stand up for the presumption of innocence, for without it, we’ve all had it.

The facts are these: George Bell was Bishop of Chichester 1929-1958, and Dean of Canterbury Cathedral before that, during which time he inaugurated the Canterbury Festival and commissioned TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. He was an eminent theologian and an acknowledged pioneer of the ecumenical movement, so much so that he has his own commemorative feast day on the Church’s calendar: October 3rd. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, Ecumenist, Peacemaker, 1958. The ‘peacemaker’ epithet was awarded for his principled objection to Churchill’s decision to carpet bomb German civilians, for which, it is averred, the Bishop failed to rise to the See of Canterbury, for which, it is also averred, he was eminently suited and qualified.

But the Wikipedia page which tells of his accolades and achievements now carries this at the bottom:

Child abuse allegations
In 1995, thirty-seven years after Bell’s death, a complaint was made to the then Bishop of Chichester Eric Kemp alleging that Bell had abused a child during the 1940s and 1950s. The complaint was not passed on to police until a second complaint was made to the office of Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2013, eighteen years after the first complaint had been made, and fifty-five years after Bell’s death. An investigation by the police concluded that there was sufficient evidence to have arrested Bell had he still been alive. The Church paid compensation in September 2015 and Martin Warner, the bishop of Chichester, issued a formal apology to the alleged victim the following month.

That formal apology was fulsome, if a little short on facts. We are told that the allegations (for that is what they are) date from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and that they are concerned with “sexual offences against an individual who was at the time a young child”. An investigation was apparently carried out, and Bishop George Bell was found guilty. Being long dead, he was unable to cross examine his accuser or to defend his good name and Christian reputation as an ecumenist and peacemaker.

In settling the claim, the current Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Rev’d Dr Martin Warner, expressed his “deep sorrow”, acknowledging that “the abuse of children is a criminal act and a devastating betrayal of trust that should never occur in any situation, particularly the church”. The Bishop praised “the survivor’s courage in coming forward to report the abuse” and notes that “along with my colleagues throughout the church, I am committed to ensuring that the past is handled with honesty and transparency”.

Except that it hasn’t been.

If the child safeguarding team at the Diocese of Chichester were operating with honesty and transparency, why don’t we know even so much as the sex of the accuser, let alone his/her identity? There is no imposed confidentiality clause: it is perfectly possible to be more honest and transparent about the facts of this case. It is bad enough that Bishop George Bell is now to be forever branded a paedophile, without leaving his sexuality in the smeary realm of the love that once dare not used to speak its name but now insists on trumpeting itself to the four corners of the earth.

In his letter to “the survivor” (what.. oh, never mind), Bishop Martin acknowledged that the response from the Diocese of Chichester in 1995, when the alleged victim first came forward, “fell a long way short, not just of what is expected now, but of what we now appreciate you should have had a right to expect then”.

Well, hindsight is a marvellous thing, but hind-judgment is a worrying delusion. Convicting yesteryear’s dead by the standards of today’s expectations would necessitate such a trawl and overhaul of Wikipedia that the pages dedicated to every long-dead saint would have to be suffixed with the conviction-biases of the latest applied psychology and zeitgeist sociology. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), and predatory priests especially, for the whiff of ecclesial paedophilia has become as unforgivable as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

We read in the Church’s statement:

Following a meeting between the survivor and Sussex police in 2013, it was confirmed by the police that the information obtained from their enquiries would have justified, had he still been alive, Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview, on suspicion of serious sexual offences, followed by release on bail, further enquiries and the subsequent submission of a police report to the CPS.

What, like they did to Jim Davidson? Paul Gambaccini? Leon Brittan? Alistair McAlpine? Ted Heath? Like they are still doing to Cliff Richard? The police are obliged to act on the strength of credible allegations, but, pace the BBC, helping the police with their enquiries is not a judgment of guilt. Further:

A formal claim for compensation was submitted in April 2014 and was settled in late September of this year. 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.

Any reason to doubt? May a living person be found guilty of child abuse on the strength of a jury simply not doubting the testimony of an accuser? Must a jury not be directed to be sure that the defendant is actually guilty? If these ‘expert independent reports’ are judiciously (not to say judicially) corroborative, why have they not been published? If ‘reasonable doubt’ is inadequate as a measure to convict the living of serious criminality, why should the dead be afforded a lesser threshold? How can the testimony of one anonymous accuser outweigh the testimonies of dozens of choirboys who knew George Bell well? Consider this letter to the The Times:

Call for facts about sex-abuse bishop
Sir, As former choristers at Chichester cathedral between 1949 and 1958, we wonder if Bishop George Bell’s status as a sexual abuser is now established as historical fact (“Eminent bishop was paedophile, admits Church”, News, Oct 23). All of us recall him as a loved, respected and saintly figure, a bishop whom we perhaps knew better than choristers would today because back then we spent so many more weeks of the year singing services than cathedral boys do now.

The revelation that Bishop Bell’s successor Martin Warner has paid compensation and accepted that his predecessor was a paedophile, 57 years after Bell’s death, is not only shocking but incredible to us — especially since so little information has been provided about the offence. The news stories talked of what would have happened had the matter come to court. However, in that case details would have been publicly provided, even if the victim had a degree of anonymity.

For the accused to speak in their own defence is fundamental justice. We are among the very few who actually remember him when alive. George Bell was a shy person who stammered — an upright, entirely moral and devout figure who meant a great deal to us as children.

We fear he has been smeared to suit a public relations need. Unless basic facts about the accusation are made public, its truth will remain cloudy. But for us, unless the business is properly aired, he will remain a saintly if controversial church leader and teacher, on whom we look back with affection.

Tom Sutcliffe, Grevile Bridge, Stewart Kershaw, Peter Watts, Andrew Bastow, Roger Davis, Peter Hamel-Cooke, Roger Manser, Richard Codd, Roger Gooding, Tony Plumridge

Perhaps George Bell didn’t fancy any of these choirboys. Indeed, perhaps the fact that so many men bother to bear witness to the Bishop’s good character points to the anonymous accuser being female. But it’s all conjecture: we can never know. We are left with known smeary innuendos of unknown sexual indiscretions. Bishop George Bell has been judged to be a paedophile in the Anglican Court of Star Chamber on the strength of the testimony of one anonymous accuser who has now been awarded undisclosed £1000s (£10,000s? £100,000?), and that is all we may know.

Peter Hitchens isn’t happy about this. Writing in the Spectator, he decries ‘The Church of England’s shameful betrayal of bishop George Bell‘:

The church’s document on the affair was available online and quickly found its way to the desks of several newspaper correspondents. Unqualified headlines resulted, and stories which proclaimed without reservation that the late bishop ‘was’ a paedophile, and ‘committed’ sexual abuse. ‘Eminent bishop was paedophile, admits church,’ said one. ‘Church’s “deep sorrow” over abuse by bishop,’ said another. ‘C of E admits “saintly” bishop abused child,’ said a third. There were plenty of inverted commas on display but none were placed around the accusation. No doubt this did not distress the Church of England, which has suffered several undoubted (and poorly handled) cases of proven abuse and which is anxious to show that it is now sound and rigorous on this subject.

Of course, the Bishop may indeed have been a child abuser. He may indeed have engaged in the 1940s equivalent of lurking in Facebook chatrooms waiting to groom young boys or girls, and then luring them to his study for a bit of Christian rape therapy. Children should not have to suffer such physical, emotional and mental torture, and if George Bell did indeed do what he is alleged to have done, the victim must be listened to, loved, counselled, and compensated.

But we must be wary of judging a man’s unequivocal guilt 70 years after the alleged event, not least because paedophile claims are fast becoming a paedomania industry: Roman Catholic dioceses in the USA are paying out $millions in compensation just to make the allegations (for that is what they are) go away, irrespective of any need to establish corporate culpability or individual guilt. And we must be very wary indeed of subjecting the dead to reputation-destroying secret trials on the strength of a single anonymous accuser. Hitchens pleads George Bell’s case eloquently:

Such a person may conceivably have been a secret abuser of children. But didn’t this fair, just, brave man (these things are proven) deserve the simple justice of the presumption of innocence, and those protections so majestically summed up in the sixth amendment to the US constitution — to be given speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to be confronted with witnesses against him, to have compulsory process to obtain witnesses in his favour, and to have the assistance of counsel in his defence?

The first impulse now is to give every suspected paedophile a good kicking – no smoke without fire, and all that: the mere allegation becomes media (and ecclesial) conviction. George Bell has lost the houses and schools named in his honour. Perhaps in a Soviet-style prelude to the imminent expunging of Bishop George Bell from the Church’s calendar, parishes have been given leave to decide for themselves how they mark his feast day on October 3rd: George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, Ecumenist, Peacemaker, 1958. Or George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, Ecumenist, Peacemaker, Paedophile, Persona non grata.

If the names of saints and heroes of the Faith are to be erased from all liturgical commemoration on the strength of modern morality or postmodern ethical sensitivities, perhaps we might look again at the case of Thomas More, whose feast day we celebrate on 6th July. Or is torturing alleged heretics in your basement a more forgivable pursuit than allegedly torturing children in your bed?