Church of England

The "absurd fiction" of the need for secrecy in the trial of Bishop George Bell


The living who are falsely accused of child abuse are slowly destroyed – physically, emotionally and spiritually. “I now have difficulty seeing myself being remotely employed, sociable, and relaxed enough to pursue any kind of relationship. The deterioration of my physical appearance caused neighbours and family members who visited to approach me differently. I feel like I have become a failure,” says Rhys, a man who has lived under the cloud of alleged paedophilia for so long that he can no longer feel the sun on his face, and perhaps never will again. But there is a hope that he might. He is alive. His doubt and self-loathing may yet be transformed by the love and support of family and fellowship. And time really does heal.

But the dead who are falsely accused of child abuse cannot be destroyed any more in their corporeal feelings or expression of faith: all that remains is to smear their reputations with wickedness and expunge people’s perceptions of their saintliness.

The campaign to secure a review of the Church’s decision to (effectively) declare the late Bishop George Bell to have been a child abuser has taken another step forward. We don’t know whether he has falsely been accused because we may not see the evidence. But we do know that the allegation represents an injustice – morally, pastorally and legally – if only because justice has not been seen to be done.

Last week, Chichester City Council resolved to re-hang a picture of the Bishop in its offices, having initially removed it for fear of vandalism (or that is the excuse they gave). The Council’s sub-committee chairman, Councillor Tony Dignum, explained that the decision to restore the portrait was based upon the Chichester Diocese’s failure to offer any evidence in support of its decision to condemn the Bishop beyond the uncorroborated claim of the accuser.

In this week’s Sussex press, a letter has appeared in support of the Council from a member of the General Synod:

I write as a member of the Church of England General Synod, a member of a Diocesan Safeguarding Group and a solicitor for 35 years with experience of hundreds of cases of child abuse, having represented victims of child abuse, those rightfully convicted and those wrongfully accused.

The Chichester Council is absolutely right to conclude that the Church has not yet put into the public domain sufficient evidence to enable a safe conclusion to be drawn that Bishop Bell was guilty of child abuse. This Is unfair to all, not least the accuser. The Church’s lack of transparency prolongs the agony for all, and its explanation that nothing can be said about its processes, because everything is confidential is misconceived in law.

Every week, the Law Reports publish detailed judgements concerning cases of sexual abuse.

They routinely describe the nature of the allegations, a summary of the evidence, for and against; the names and 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 fact. All this is done in the public interest without compromising the identity of the accuser to the slightest degree.

In the light of such routine transparency, why does the Church continue in the absurd fiction that it cannot answer the most basic of questions about the processes by which it reached a conclusion in the case of Bishop George Bell? Nobody is asking for clues to identity, only evidence that a process of due diligence has been undertaken.

All we are getting is “Trust me I am a Bishop” which paradoxically, embodies precisely the toxic culture of deference and unaccountability which dropped the Church into such messes in the first place.

Martin Sewell

The focus hitherto has been upon Justice for Bishop George Bell, but with this letter Martin Sewell broadens it to the fact that the secretive processes by which the Bishop was judged is not simply a matter of historical accuracy, but a very live issue for the Church of England today, as it will be tomorrow and the day after, and will continue to be so until his questions are answered.

This coming week, the House of Bishops will discuss the Elliott Review, which offers recommendations on how the church should handle child abuse cases in the future. It was written by a consultant social worker, which is a perfectly respectable and relevant discipline. Yet it is worth reflecting that Martin Sewell is a lawyer who is very experienced in the intricate processes by which evidence is gathered, evaluated and judged. That objective, forensic approach contrasts with the pastoral empathetic care which is the first impulse of the modern bishop.

While Christians are urged to be as gentle as doves, we are also required to be wise as serpents. Complainants undoubtedly have the right to be heard and to have their accounts taken seriously and treated compassionately. But that ought never to be confused with the need for instant belief: no complainant can reasonably demand uncritical acceptance of an allegation, and no judge should give it.

The Church needs its pastors, but it also needs its prophetic critics to ensure that its policies and procedures are just and rigorous. Martin Sewell is right to remind us that justice must be transparent and accountable – two features which are unnecessarily lacking from the Diocese’s ongoing handling of this case. The Bishop of Chichester Martin Warner may dismiss the “strident voices” which are seeking to “undermine” the “survivor’s” claims against George Bell, thereby exacerbating her suffering in a deeply un-Christian way (the intended inference). But George Bell can no longer grieve for his reputation or demand rehabilitation. Trust demands justice, and justice must be seen to have been done. This is not going to go away, and the voices will remain as “strident” as they need to be until the necessary transparency and accountability are secured.