Welby Bishop Bell George Bell
Church of England

How far is Bishop George Bell’s reputation restored? When is a cloud not a cloud?

This is a guest post by Synod members Martin Sewell and David Lamming.


The Church of England has now published the Briden Report into the further allegations against Bishop George Bell, and as with the report of Lord Carlile, Archbishop Justin Welby and the Bishop of Chichester have immediately issued statements of their own in response to the conclusion that the fresh allegations do not reach the ordinary standards of proof which are routinely required in the civil courts to enable a safe finding to be made against those accused.

Few can fail to welcome the closure that this report appears to bring to these matters, based upon what it is possible to state with any reasonable degree of confidence, given that six or seven decades have passed since the events in question, with all the problems, lack of clarity and potential for injustice that such delay inevitably brings.

In the Carlile Report, Professor Anthony Maden, a leading forensic psychiatrist with a specialism in false memory issues, had put his finger on the key evidential requirement for any such historic case – corroboration. If one is to avoid guilt by denunciation, one should look to find some extraneous evidence, whether witness, diary date, physical evidence or closely contemporaneous complaint. He explained the reason from a psychological/ psychiatric perspective very clearly:

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… Memory is not reliable over such long periods of time. Recall is an active mental process in which memories tend to become distorted with time to fit the individual’s beliefs, needs and values. Both the content and the meaning of recollections change with time. Events can and do acquire a significance years later that they did not have at the time (Carlile Report, para 178).

These observations made in respect of the original allegations are no less pertinent to the subsequent complaints which were of similar antiquity.

We should further have regard to the well-established principle that the more serious the allegation, the more cogent should be the evidence necessary to established it: in simple terms, one might require less evidence to believe an archbishop guilty of a parking infringement than that he indulged in devil worship. Few allegations are more serious, or indeed destructive of reputation, than a suggestion of child abuse, and the evidence required to establish it is, and should be, proportionately robust.

On this basis alone, based upon the age of the new allegations and the delay in bringing them until after the original allegations by ‘Carol’ were made public, we were naturally mindful of the observations of Lady Elizabeth Butler Sloss during the House of Lords debate on the first set of allegations: sometimes one just has to accept that as a result of the passage of time, we simply cannot know the truth. That notwithstanding, Tim Briden’s report is actually forceful in rejecting the new allegations as ‘inconsistent, ‘inaccurate’, ‘unconvincing’ or, in some cases, ‘mere rumour’. See, too, his ‘summary of decision’ on page 23 where he uses the terms: “unverified by independent sources and unreliable”; “inherently unconvincing and without corroboration”, and “unsubstantiated”. These are trenchant words addressed to allegations that after thorough investigation can only be described as ‘thin’.

Given human nature, and the sensitivity of any complaint against Church or clergy in these febrile times, it is probably not surprising that an effort is being made by the Church of England to temporise between those protective of the Bishop’s considerable reputation and the not inconsiderable number of victims of other scandals, many with well attested stories, complaining that traditionally victims have had great difficulty in being taken seriously by the Church.

Archbishop Justin identifies what he perceives as the lingering problem: “This very difficult issue therefore leaves the church with an impossible dilemma which I hope people with different perspectives on it will try to understand.”

Surely, however, these problems were of the church’s own making, by reason of the various deficiencies within its original process and a core group investigation that transgressed so many of the principles of a fair and just inquiry. By characterising the dilemma as ‘impossible’, the Archbishop seems to be seeking to justify his earlier omission to issue a retraction that George Bell remained under a “significant cloud”. That characterisation was injudicious at the time and remains problematic.

Bishop Martin complements the Archbishop’s observation:

We have all been diminished by this case. The legitimate quest for certainty has been defeated by the nature of the case and the passage of time. Bishop Bell cannot be proven guilty, nor can it be safely claimed that the original complainant has been discredited. There is an uncertainty which cannot be resolved. We ask those who hold opposing views on this matter to recognize the strength of each other’s commitment to justice and compassion.

Some will argue that it is disingenuous to say that it cannot be “safely claimed that the original complainant has been discredited” when the original process inaugurated by the church was so deeply flawed and for which, to his credit, Archbishop Justin has now unreservedly apologised. Surely what the Bishops cannot now do is to rely on the inadequacies of the ‘Bell 1’ investigation to justify these self-justifying comments.

The problem remains where do we go from here?

The Church of England has already learned much – though still not quite enough. The deficiencies in the management of proper process identified by Lord Carlile were noted and avoided in the approach of Timothy Briden. This report is as robust in the way that the first Bell core group findings were weak.

Dr Warner identifies important aspects:

In particular, we have learned that the boundaries of doubt and certainty have to be stated with great care, that the dead and those who are related to them have a right to be represented, and that there must be a balanced assessment of the extent to which it would be in the public interest to announce the details of any allegation.

This is good, but we ought not to ignore that old habits died hard. When the fresh allegations arose, we had to work very hard to reverse the original decision that the church, not the last surviving relative of Bishop Bell, Mrs Barbara Whitley, should nominate who should represent the late Bishop’s interests in the new investigation. Fortunately, joint representations by ourselves, Desmond Browne QC, Bell’s biographer Andrew Chandler, and Lord Carlile himself, finally resolved the matter in accordance with Mrs Whitley’s wishes. Happily, she, unlike Bishop Bell’s chaplain and private secretary Canon Adrian Carey, lived to see diligent due process applied and better justice according to the law resulting. She and Bell supporters may not be so pleased with the gloss being applied by Church leaders.

Even with the Briden investigation we had a degree of secrecy and delay. There was initial reluctance to identify the investigating officer or the reviewer. The estimated timetable was not disclosed, nor were the terms of reference published until now, despite the possibility of appropriate protection of identities being employed, which no campaigners we are aware of objected to. As for delay, the announcement by the National Safeguarding Team (NST) that there was to be an ‘independent investigation’ was made on 31st January 2018, yet it took another six months before Mr Briden was formally instructed (on 30th July 2018). By then, Sussex Police, with whom the 31st January statement said the NST would be “work[ing] collaboratively” had reported to the church (on 20th March 2018) that they had carried out “a proportionate investigation”, which had been done “thoroughly and sensitively” and that there were “no current safeguarding issues”.

Transparency and accountability are much praised within the church, yet even with a review which is likely to gain much approval, its reasoning being set out with great clarity, we can still see that its genesis showed a reluctance to embrace these important principles. As set out above, their was chronic delay and cards being played closer to the chest than was needed. It was very hard to question the evolving process. Now we can see that most was done well – but why the reluctance to be open?

We do try to give credit where it is due.

When we first joined together to raise concerns about the allegations against Bishop Bell at the General Synod, we struggled to impress on the Bishops the value of involving specialist lawyers from the earliest stage. We hope the clarity brought by both report authors will have established the value of our initial insistence that these matters need early professional expertise from the outset. Without dwelling excessively on this, we note with regret that the Church of England still employs not a single specialist safeguarding lawyer.

We are still beset with the problem that the decision does not bring closure, for unlike the courts we still have a ‘but’. How far is Bishop Bell’s reputation restored?

Those devoted to his memory will still want to see his memory revered in the Cathedral where he served with distinction for many years. Not unreasonably, they want the property of significant value specifically gifted to the Diocese by a private benefactor as a memorial to the Bishop, to have its original name ‘George Bell House’ restored from the more prosaic ‘4 Canon Lane’, by which it is currently known. They make similar representations about a local school and a school house.

“Why not?” they ask. “Does the Church not subscribe to the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’?” Survivors generally complain of a number of bishops against whom clergy discipline complaints have been raised. All have been dismissed: some after full evaluation of the evidence, but others evading scrutiny by pleading the rule that ordinarily allegations must be brought within 12 months. It is reportedly a relatively high bar to clear. These may, of course, have concerned less grave matters (though serious enough to the complainants), but surely critics will ask if any of these bishops are still officially considered to be “under a cloud”, especially those whose cases were defeated not on merit but on the application of the time limitation only.

Can they be considered less guilty of their alleged misconduct than George Bell, who has been through not one but two searching investigations without the opportunity to plead his own case? He has not had those allegations upheld. Does he not deserve to be treated as well as any other acquitted person?

Superficially it may seem attractive to seek favour with the victim community in such a highly publicised ‘statement case’. It could curry favour with those who have been treated so poorly by the Church in the past to have such a figure placed “under a cloud”. Some do still assert that “the victim must be believed” – contrary to the recommendations of Sir Richard Henriques in his report on the Met Police’s Operation Midland, as approved by Lord Carlile. However, there is another strand within the victim community that will see the willingness to treat the dead differently from the living as proof of ‘the purple circle’ willing to sacrifice the dead to better protect living colleagues.

The allegations were extremely serious. Archbishop Justin is to be applauded for treating the matter so seriously: we cannot ignore the fact that the evidence in all cases was not strong. Justice is a balance: if one finds it hard to administer coolly and dispassionately, it might be an argument for placing such decisions away from the Church. A pastor’s heart is a great thing, but perhaps not in one necessarily exercising judicial decisions and commentary.

The suspicion of dual standards between the living and the dead is illustrated by the case of the former Bishop of Gloucester, Michael Perham, who was the subject of similar allegations which were also found unreliable after investigation. Upon his retirement he received a standing ovation from General Synod, with Archbishop Justin declaring that he was “glad to thank Bishop Perham wholeheartedly for his ministry after all the investigations and inquiries had cleared him”.

The Archbishop was, of course, dealing with someone he knew; a much-liked and respected colleague. But his acknowledgment that Bishop Perham had been ‘cleared’ followed the well established rule: innocent until proven guilty. It was good to see a faithful servant of the Church vindicated, but is hard to see how that precedent differs from that of George Bell, save that one was personally known to many of those insisting ‘innocent until proven guilty’ at the time, whereas few of us will have a personal attachment to a man who died in 1958.

If there is a clear and proper distinction between the cases, it needs to be fully articulated. As things stand, the discrepancy between the cases is hard to reconcile.

It seems to us that a black-and-white approach to these matters has the considerable merit of certainty, whereas once one moves into gradations of grey we will be asking for trouble. That is why an official approach that accepts the quasi-judicial decision is probably the wisest course of action in such cases. What one thinks privately and individually is, of course, entirely a matter of conscience.

These matters will no doubt be further examined in the days ahead. They may even reappear on the General Synod agenda.