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Church of England

‘Sorry’ seems to be the hardest word: apologetics and apologies in the Bishop Bell case

This is a guest post by the Very Rev’d Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford.


An apology is a written or spoken expression of regret and remorse; or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another. Apologetics, in contrast, is that branch of theology concerned with the defending the church, or proving its beliefs, faith and practices.

The recent case of Mr Liam Allan and the Metropolitan Police is instructive. Mr Allan, aged 22, had been charged with twelve counts of rape and sexual assault. But the officer in charge of the case had failed to find or consider key evidence amongst many thousands of messages on the alleged victim’s mobile phone. An Independent Report found that “a considerable lack of knowledge” by police and prosecutors was to blame for the failed case against the accused. The case against Mr Allan was finally dropped when evidence on a computer disk containing 40,000 messages revealed the alleged victim had pestered Mr Allan repeatedly for “casual sex”. Data recovered between the alleged victim and her friends revealed that she thought Mr Allan was a kind person, and that she loved him and had enjoyed some great experiences with him. Elsewhere, there were also references to rape fantasies, according to Mr Allan’s lawyer.

The case against Mr Allan at Croydon Crown Court was therefore dropped. The Crown Prosecution Service found that “a combination of error, lack of challenge, and lack of knowledge” led to the flawed investigation and the collapse of the trial. On January 30th 2018, the Metropolitan Police apologised unreservedly. They did not seek to justify the allegations. There was no attempt at self-justifying apologetics. The police accepted they were wrong, and they said so. The police acknowledged that their belief in the victim simply did not measure up against the facts. They apologised. They said that hardest word for institutions: ‘sorry’.

At the same time as Mr Allan’s apology was receiving his unreserved apology, the Church of England was about enter a new phase of apologetics in respect of Bishop George Bell. The Independent Report led by Lord Carlile into the conduct of the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team (NST) had found multiple failures in relation to allegations made against Bishop George Bell. The Report was clear, forensic and detailed – and highly critical of the NST.

But the response of the Church of England to that report was mealy-mouthed, to say the least. The Church of England accepted a significant number of Lord Carlile’s findings and recommendations. The Church emerged with little credit. The Carlile Report exposed embarrassing levels of incompetence with members of the NST ‘Core Group’. Yet at the same the Church of England insisted that Bishop Bell had a case to answer – even though all the apparent ‘evidence’ pointed towards the opposite conclusion. Namely that Bell, and Bell’s family, friends and supporters were due an apology. Instead the Church of England dug deeper into a defensive apologetic ethos. Bell, we were told, still had a “significant cloud hanging over him”. That was December 2017.

At the end of January 2018, at the same time Mr Allan was receiving his full and unreserved apology from the Metropolitan Police, the Church of England had decided to announce that “fresh information” on Bell had come to light. It is hard to fathom how the Church of England can, yet again, conscionably inform the public through a press release that this “new information” has been shared with Sussex police, if not to insinuate Bell’s guilt once again. The reference to the involvement of the police made it appear that there was serious substance to the allegations.

Lord Carlile reacted by saying that he was astonished that the Church had gone public with the new claim, when among his recommendations was that people accused of abuse should remain anonymous until the allegations are proven. We note that the decision of the NST to share the information through a press release is a direct breach of article 3.8 of the Practice Guidance 2017 from the House of Bishops, published in October 2017.

So, despite the Church of England saying – begrudgingly – that it had accepted many of Lord Carlile’s recommendations in his report, it appears that this is not the case. For starters, the ‘Core Group’ of the NST that will investigate the alleged “new information” looks set to include some members of the previously discredited group. Members of that original Core Group are seriously conflicted and should not in any way participate in the new investigation. The deficiencies and failings in the process and mind-set of the original Core Group were so extensive that no one who was a member of this dealing with the first complaint (by someone known as ‘Carol’) could be confidently relied upon.

We must remember that Carlile’s report noted that the original Core Group failed to establish a process that was fair and equitable to both Carol and the reputation of Bishop Bell. There was “a rush to judgment”, which failed to give proper consideration to the rights of Bishop Bell. The Core Group was set up in an unmethodical and unplanned way, and became a confused and unstructured process. The ‘process’ – if that can be any meaningful description of the debacle overseen by the NST – was predicated on Bishop Bell’s guilt. The truth of what ‘Carol’ was saying was implicitly accepted without serious investigation or and kind of wide-ranging inquiry. Carlile’s report was effectively a vote of ‘no confidence’ in the NST.

As for ‘proven’, Mrs Barbara Whitley, George Bell’s niece, and now 94 years of age, has made it clear that she wished to be represented by Desmond Browne QC. Yet without consulting with Mrs Whitley or the wider family further, on 8th February 2018, Graham Tilby of the NST informed Bell’s family and friends that he had assigned a Mr Donald Findlater to represent their interests and concerns. Moreover, it seems that Findlater had already attended the first Core Group meeting on 29th January 2018. At the time of that meeting Mrs Whitley had absolutely no idea about the new allegations. She has never met Findlater. So it must have been a strange and somewhat surreal sensation for the family and friends of Bishop George Bell to discover that the Church of England had appointed their defence advocate to represent Bell, without consulting the interested parties, and without anyone knowing what the “fresh information” consisted of.

Judging by his media profile, Donald Findlater has been a spirited campaigner for the prevention of child sexual abuse. Yet so far as can be gauged, he appears to have no experience of working with individuals wrongly accused of sex offences, and does not have the requisite legal qualifications or experience to judge where the truth lies on the balance of probabilities. (So he will hardly be the ideal person to defend Bishop George Bell’s reputation and legacy, and address the concerns of his supporters).

According to the Bishop at Lambeth, speaking on Radio 4 on 10th February 2018, the NST Core Group at their first meeting had to make a decision whether the ‘evidence’ that had come forward was credible or not. It is impossible to see how Bell’s family could form a view on the credibility of the new information or ‘evidence’, if they were unaware of the nature of that information and indeed of the meeting taking place. Nevertheless the Bishop at Lambeth assured listeners that the Church was taking Lord Carlile’s report “very seriously”. He explained:

“…that first core group has to make a decision about whether the evidence that’s come forward is credible or not. I think you’d accept with me it’s completely wrong for the family to be concerned about matters until the matters are seen to be credible. It would be very wrong of us to go to the family of a deceased person and raise an issue with them which then doesn’t need to be looked into any further.”

I’m at a loss to know why, if Barbara Whitley isn’t yet supposed to be concerned about this “fresh information”, it was deemed to be sufficiently credible to be broadcast to the world.

The difference between an apology and apologetics lies in the delicate moral arena bounded by humility, wisdom and courage. Apologetics focuses on defending the institution. Understood and used well, apologetics serves the truth. Misunderstood and applied badly, it becomes little more than a disingenuous public relations exercise, designed to cover-up institutional mistakes and flaws.

It takes mature and composed leaders, of significant moral bearing, to be able to admit to their public that they were wrong, and to apologise for mistakes. It is the lack of courage, wisdom and humility that sees individuals and institutions continue to reassert their case – all in the face of reasoned and careful arguments to the contrary. And when this happens to institutions, hubris surely follows. It is at this point the institution and its leaders cannot be believed; cannot be trusted to oversee a process that might excavate and uphold the truth; and cannot, ultimately, inspire the required faith in their own leadership. A little over 40 years ago, Elton John penned these words, from which I have drawn the title for this short article:

It’s sad (so sad) so sad
It’s a sad sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd
It’s sad (so sad) so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me that sorry seems to be the hardest word.

If the Metropolitan Police can apologise to Liam Allan, it can only be hoped that Barbara Whitley and others might still be alive to eventually hear the word ‘sorry’ from the Church of England. Meanwhile, we wait in hope.