Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury from members of the George Bell Group

5 July 2016
The Most Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Lambeth Palace
London SE1 7JU

Dear Archbishop,

We write in response to the statement issued by the Church of England on 28 June 2016.

We welcome the announcement of an Independent Review into the case.

For this to be an effective and meaningful exercise, and one that frames an appropriate response to what has so far occurred, it is crucial that a new enquiry is independently-based. It must also be seen, within the Church and in the wider world, to set down clearly the questions on which it is to proceed. We say this because we are concerned to note the statement made by a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Chichester, reported in the Brighton Argus that ‘there is absolutely no suggestion that this review is about what decision was made’.  Further, we are troubled by what was said by the Bishop of Chelmsford, by way of effective endorsement of this statement, in his speech in the House of Lords last Thursday (30 June), in particular that ‘the Church remains satisfied of the credibility of [Carol’s] allegation’.

The remainder of this letter sets out the reasons why such independence is imperative. The Statement of 28 June refers to the Church’s Practice Guidance. We do the same here.

  1. The first statement, of 22 Oct 2015, recounts that the authors of the ‘expert independent reports’ found no ‘reason to doubt the veracity’ of Carol’s claim. This indicates that they were proceeding on the wrong footing. They were according prima facie credibility to Carol’s statement, hence their description of her as ‘the survivor’, and then looking for any reason to doubt it. Had a lawyer been amongst the experts they would have proceeded on the correct basis that it was for the claimant to establish on the balance of probabilities that she had been assaulted over a 4-year period. We know from the safeguarding pages of the Church of England website that no person with any legal expertise is part of the Church’s National Safeguarding Team. It is also now clear that no person with any legal expertise played any part in the production of the ‘expert independent reports’ on which the Church has placed so much reliance. The speech by the Bishop of Chelmsford referred to the Core Group having ‘the benefit of legal advice’, and to the advice being ‘that, had the claim been tested by a court, on the balance of probabilities, Carol would have won her claim’. However, such advice was given on a flawed basis since the Core Group did not examine all the available evidence, as the George Bell Group’s report exposes.  Further, the actual source, character and authority of the legal advice is undisclosed.
  2. Whether there is any reason to doubt Carol’s veracity turns on the thoroughness of the investigation of the circumstantial evidence. The George Bell Group’s report of 20 March 2016 itemises its inadequacy; two prime examples are the failure to speak to Canon Adrian Carey and the failure to appreciate basic problems of location. We are now told that the Bell archives were consulted on two days by three visitors. We are bound to say that this brings very little reassurance indeed of thoroughness and expertise.
  3. The Church’s Practice Guidance (para.14.5) provides that ‘an independent case review’ may be commissioned in ‘particularly challenging or complex circumstances’ or ‘where reasonable complaints about process have been raised’. Each ground is applicable here.
  4. In para.14.6 of the Guidance, it is stated that ‘the case review should be led by an individual(s) who is independent [emphasis in the original] of the case under review and of the organisations who [sic] actions are being reviewed’. It follows that the review must be independent of both the Diocese of Chichester and of the National Safeguarding Team whose process is being reviewed.
  5. The Bishop of Chelmsford said in the House of Lords on 30 June 2016 that the independent reviewer ‘will review the process. What he or she does after that is a matter for them.’ This uncertainty is totally unsatisfactory.
  6. 14.7 of the Guidance indicates that ‘the methodology for conducting the case review should be decided by the Diocesan Safeguarding Group or National Safeguarding Panel’. We find this wholly inappropriate and, indeed, unjust in the present case. These are the very people whose processes are being reviewed.
  7. It is now known from the Goddard Inquiry that the guilt or innocence of Bishop Bell will not be part of their case study of the Diocese of Chichester. This makes it essential that as part of the review of process the issue of guilt or innocence is confronted, and proper weight given to the presumption of innocence. Indeed it is hard to see how if the process was defective, it can continue to be said that on the balance of probabilities, Bell was guilty.
  8. For the reasons given in the paper by His Honour Alan Pardoe QC and Desmond Browne QC, now to be found on the George Bell Group website, we believe that the Church has no legal justification for its claim to confidentiality. To analyse the process properly the review must now put into the public domain the following material itemised by the Bishop of Chelmsford on which it is said that the core group of experts relied:
    1. The views of Sussex Police.
    2. Evidence about Carol’s connection with the Bishop’s Palace at Chichester,
    3. The letters of instruction (if any) submitted to the medical experts, and medical reports (suitably redacted)
    4. Bell papers in the Lambeth Palace Library examined by church staff.

    Transparency demands that the review should also consider (albeit appropriately redacted to protect Carol’s identity) all her accounts of the alleged assaults starting in 1995. This will demonstrate whether those accounts have been internally consistent and consistent with her subsequent accounts to the media (in particular, to the Brighton Argus). They will also show whether they are consistent with other available evidence (including what is said by Canon Carey) and with the lay-out and use of the Bishop’s Palace at the relevant time.

  9. Following on from Lord Lexden’s questions in the House of Lords on 30 June 2016, we would now ask for confirmation that:
    1. The reviewer will have legal experience relevant to child abuse,
    2. The review will be willing to receive written evidence and submissions from third parties, and address the concerns raised by the George Bell Group’s report,
    3. The review will proceed on the footing that the burden of proof in civil proceedings rests on the claimant, and will take account of the points about the standard of proof highlighted by Baroness Butler-Sloss in her speech in last week’s House of Lords debate, in particular ‘the importance of looking carefully at the inherent probability or improbability of the allegations’, and her ‘considerable concern … where the balance of probabilities is applied to historic cases of child abuse in which the alleged perpetrator is dead’.
    4. The methodology of the review will not be such that it is merely a review of the process leading up to the release of the Church’s statement of 22 October 2015.
    5. We wish to raise a further concern. We acknowledge that the commissioning of a Reviewer and the definition of the terms of the brief require serious consideration. We assume that these decisions will be made public. Yet we are also conscious that many people now look for reassurance that the Church will proceed with all deliberate speed. Accordingly, we would press that a clear sense of a timetable for the commissioning of the Reviewer and for the establishment of terms be announced.

    We wholly endorse Lord Carey’s plea in the House of Lords on 30 June that the Church must ensure ‘there is a clear, objective and open investigation, in which senior legal expertise is applied, to satisfy us all that justice has been served and above all, that the process be as open as it possibly can be.’ We are most anxious that the Church of England avoids further public embarrassment and further campaigning on this case. For this reason alone, not to mention those reasons of natural justice, it is clearly imperative that the reviewer appointed be truly independent and of significant legal and public calibre. The Review itself must be fair, balanced, legally robust and impartial. If we fail in this regard, the repercussions in the wider public sphere will become even more serious than they currently are.

    We trust that you will be able to let us have full and reassuring replies to these points of fundamental importance.

    Desmond Browne QC
    Andrew Chandler
    The Revd Dr Keith Clements
    The Lord Dear
    Mark Dunn
    Michael Hames
    The Revd Dr Anthony Harvey
    Jimmy James
    The Lord Lexden
    His Hon Alan Pardoe QC
    The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy
    Margery Roberts