Church of England

Synod 'No Confidence' motion looms in the secret trial of Bishop George Bell (RIP)


The Church of England has (at last) announced an independent review into its handling of its secret Cadaver Synod posthumous trial of the late Bishop George Bell (see here, here, here and here for the history). The stated objective is “to see what lessons can be learnt from how the case was handled”. This is good news.

Kind of.

The Guardian notes: “Church sources said the review was routine and it was not revisiting its decision to apologise and pay compensation to a woman who claimed she was abused as a small child by the bishop of Chichester in the 1940s and 50s.”

So this review is procedural and offers the late Bishop George Bell no hope of absolution: he is to remain a paedophile in perpetuity, “on the balance of probabilities”.

A letter is currently circulating to members of the General Synod, in the hope of issuing a motion of No Confidence. Former solicitor Martin Sewell, the author of the letter, emphasises that there is no personal attack on the Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, but rather a challenge to the culture of secrecy which he is intent on defending. The letter is reproduced in full:

Dear Synod Colleague,

I am writing to you to ask that you give consideration to supporting a Private Member’s Motion which my legal colleague, David Lamming, and I are seeking to have debated at the next Synod in February 2017. To do so we shall need 100 signatures from Synod members.

David is a recently-retired barrister, experienced in ecclesiastical and criminal law, and I recently retired after approximately 30 years as a specialist Child Protection solicitor. We have independently become very worried about the muddle that the Church is getting itself into – unnecessarily – when dealing with the investigation of historical child abuse, which it has done under the cloak of institutional secrecy. The problem is neatly encapsulated in the case of the late Bishop Bell of Chichester, though it has much wider application. In our opinion, a culture of openness matters: it ought to be capable of being taken for granted, yet currently we cannot do that.

The text of our motion is as follows:

“That this Synod regret that it can have no confidence in the investigation conducted on behalf of the Church of England into the allegations against the late Bishop Bell, by reason of its lack of transparency and accountability, and affirm that:

(a)  openness of process is the cornerstone of confidence in all such investigations;

(b)  a Church of Justice must hold rigorously to the principle of equal fairness to accuser and accused alike; and

(c)  there is no dissonance in logic or in law between (i) the preservation of individual accuser anonymity and (ii) the public interest in ensuring fair procedures and a transparent system of justice which clearly explains its processes, discloses the substance of the evidence, and the reasons for its conclusions.”

In asking you to sign the motion we ought to make a number of things clear.

This is not an attack on the current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, whose integrity we unreservedly acknowledge. He is, however, operating way outside the comfort zone of most bishops, and we are concerned that he has not been well advised, as will be explained.

We are not asking you to take a view on the allegations themselves; regrettably the Church is unwilling so go beyond the statement issued by the Church of England media centre on 22 October 2015. Paradoxically, since the statement was issued, the accuser has chosen partially to waive her confidentiality and has given interviews to the press.

Far from being a matter limited to the historic reputation of a long dead clergyman, the problems presented by the case are all about the Church of today, and whether we wish to conduct these matters transparently and with the ability to call those investigating to account.  A Church that can use secrecy to avoid accountability (even if it has reached a correct conclusion ) is practiced and able to use those same techniques when it is in the wrong.

A major duty of General Synod is to hold the Church Establishment to account when it prefers not to be transparent. I ask you to help us in asserting that important role in this case.

In signing the motion, you are not committed to supporting it when debated; you are simply saying that we have raised sufficient concern to warrant the matter being discussed in greater detail.

When we advance the motion, it will be to strengthen the Church’s credibility in its efforts to promote confidence in its general safeguarding reforms and it in no way ignores or denigrates what has and is being achieved.

If we promote transparency, we should practice what we preach.

Although not formal members of the George Bell Group or the Bell Society, David and I have been in regular contact with them to understand the problems and to keep up to date. The George Bell Group has an impressive core group of members who share our concerns. Here is that list:

Bishop Bell’s biographer, Andrew Chandler, has compiled a core dossier of relevant documents, setting out the areas of concern, and including the little that the Diocese of Chichester has said on the subject. We cannot ask everyone to read everything, but at least we will have provided the core materials as fairly as we can to anyone wishing to consider the matter in depth. Here it is

The Chichester Diocese, supported by the National Church (see the answer given by the Bishop of Durham to Prudence Dailey’s question at the Synod in February), has asserted that nothing about the case can be placed in the public domain for reasons of legal confidentiality. From our joint legal experience, David and I saw that this was logically and legally erroneous.

Judgments by judges in court cases concerning allegations of sexual abuse are regularly published on a public website. Such judgments routinely describe the nature of the allegations, a summary of the evidence, for and against; they set out the expertise of the experts; their points of agreement and disagreement; a summary of the applicable law; the evaluation of contested evidence, and the Court findings on disputed facts. All this is done in the public interest without compromising the identity of the accuser, whose anonymity is expressly preserved.

One of the latest of such case reports can be sampled here: Not only does this case demonstrate the detail that can be lawfully published with suitable anonymisation; both at the outset, and in his conclusion, the Judge bemoans how frequently “experts” and “professionals” fall into premature “belief” of allegations and ignore the most basic principles of holding analytical detachment. This, we suspect, may be the problem with the Bell case.

In the light of such routine transparency, it seemed incomprehensible to us why the Church should wish to continue in the absurd fiction that it cannot answer the most basic of questions about the processes by which it reached its conclusion in the case of Bishop Bell.

We have been greatly fortified in that view since the George Bell Group secured a legal opinion from a retired circuit judge (with extensive experience of trying sex abuse cases, also a QC) and a distinguished Queen’s Counsel, a former Chairman of the Bar Council. That opinion addresses the law of confidentiality and confirms that the Chichester understanding of the law is fundamentally misconceived. Here is that opinion:

If there is such error in the one area that the Church has made public, how can anyone have confidence in the processes that have been withheld?

A second “line of defence” argued by the Church to resist greater transparency is that these matters should be left to be considered by the Goddard Inquiry.

That too is erroneous. Bishop Bell’s biographer, Andrew Chandler, and Dean Martyn Percy of Christ Church Oxford applied to become Core Participants in the Inquiry but were unsuccessful: they were not considered to have sufficient legal status to do so under the Inquiry rules. In giving her ruling, Dame Lowell Goddard stated that “Bell’s guilt or innocence is not a critical aspect of this Inquiry, or of the Anglican investigation, or of the investigation’s case studies”.

Accordingly, currently,  there will be nobody arguing the deficiency of the Chichester Investigatory process when Goddard comes to do its work. Inquiries are only as good as the evidence considered. That could change, but for now, if we do not challenge the culture of lack of transparency in such matters through General Synod, we cannot be confident that this will be comprehensively considered in another place.

There is much more that can be said, but I hope you will be satisfied from this measured approach that it is in the Church’s interest for us to press the matter at this time.

Since this letter was prepared, which was always intended to be sent out after the PMM had been formally accepted, there has been an important development with the announcement of a “routine case review” of the Bishop Bell decision. It is at present uncertain what that means and we are endeavouring to clarify. We want to be sure that this announcement represents a lesson learnt and not a kick into the long grass

The use of the term “routine” might suggest that the terms of the review follows an established precedent and procedure, the terms of which ought therefore to be readily if not immediately made public – certainly by the time of Synod. We are told that no clarification is intended at Synod.

Further, on 30 June 2016 there was a debate in the House of Lords in which the Church’s  October 2015 statement was described by the distinguished former HM Inspector of Constabulary, Lord Dear, as “slippery” and “disingenuous”. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, described the Church’s procedures in the Bell case as having “the character of a kangaroo court.” You will appreciate the level of concern and frustration in their Lordships’ House, when such language is deployed.

Here is the link to the Hansard Report of the Lords’ debate:

At the time of writing, our efforts to secure answers to reasonable questions continue to be stubbornly obstructed. It appears that only by securing the necessary signatures and forcing an open debate of the issues, will we see proper transparency and accountability established.  I hope you will help us. Members of the House of Clergy might wish to consider whether they would be content to have their posthumous reputations subject to the current regime of handling such matters.

Should you have questions or wish to talk to us at Synod before signing, please feel free to get in touch.

With kind regards

Martin Sewell
(Rochester 391)

“A major duty of General Synod is to hold the Church Establishment to account when it prefers not to be transparent.” Indeed.