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The Bell Case and the Wider Culture of the Church of England

The world learnt on 22nd October 2015 that George Bell, a much-admired wartime Bishop of Chichester, had apparently been found guilty by Church authorities of child sexual abuse against “Carol”. As a result, his reputation has been irreparably damaged, and schools and institutions dedicated to his memory have been renamed. The Church of England has consistently accepted the allegation of abuse as true.

Yet some may begin to wonder how exactly the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team has operated in the Bell case. No living witnesses from the late 1940’s or early 1950’s were contacted by the team. Such people – relatives of Bell, and former employees – could easily have corroborated or challenged “Carol’s” testimony. Bell’s own diaries (accessible, and in the public domain) appear to not have been consulted, and which reveal him to be away on church business – including overseas tours – for some of the alleged periods of abuse.

Bell’s biographer – a historian of prodigious reputation – was never consulted by those investigating the claims. As Dr. Andrew Chandler notes, because Bell was such a towering ecclesiastical, political and cultural figure, he was “the most closely observed bishop of the twentieth century”, with almost every detail of his life written about, scrutinised and noted. But Chandler was never so much as contacted by the Safeguarding Team.

Despite these glaring gaps in investigative practice, the Bishop of Durham, who presides over the National Safeguarding Team, consistently assured us that the process of inquiry of Bell was ‘robust’, ‘thorough’ and ‘lengthy’. So what has happened here? How can a handful of professionals running a process as important as safeguarding, backed by a senior bishop, manage to preside over such a debacle?

The Church of England currently seems to be awash with ‘corporate-speak’. Words such as ‘robust’ and ‘thorough’ are frequently uttered. Yet some of the organisational paradigms being imposed on the church are of deficient quality.

We see these problems in the reform and renewal programme. Training for ministry education is being overhauled by an ex-banker who knows nothing about this vocational arena, or of theological education. A proposed reorganisation of canon law seems wary of consulting with canon lawyers and other experts. There seems to be no willingness to look at the history that has shaped the present. The prevailing assumption is that the past is done with; the present is a mess; and the new breed of leaders will sweep it all away, to make a brighter future.

So, it is the same pattern each time: a failure of the managers driving change to engage with the past and then consult with current expertise, who might then challenge the authority and proficiency of those same managers. The reformers seem to lack ecclesial comprehension: they seldom seem to understand the nature of the body they seek to control and improve. Yet their power remains un-checked.

We obviously cannot know what happened to “Carol” over sixty years ago. We are naturally concerned for her well-being. She clearly believes she was sexually abused. Yet the weight of evidence suggests that her belief – that she is a ‘survivor’ of sexual abuse at Bell’s hands – is not something that could be given any wider credence.

There clearly are serious cases – historic and current – that the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team needs to pursue. But equally, there are already too many instances of alleged abusers being judged and treated harshly – assumed to be guilty until proved innocent – only for us to discover later that no charges are to be brought. The shadows that hang over these other victims, and the stigmatisation they endure, should not be overlooked.

A thorough investigation into how the Bell case was handled would go some way into restoring broken trust, ensuring that there was accountability and fairness in future practices – for both victims and the accused. A thorough investigation could also examine how the Church of England’s work in this arena is to be audited in future, because we simply cannot afford a failure of process on this scale again. It must be hoped that the leadership of the Church of England will now find the humility and grace to recognise its failings in the Bell case, and resolve to do better.

The root of all evil is the abuse of power. Those who have used their power to abuse children, and those who have covered up such sins, cannot be allowed to hide. All must live in the light of justice and scrutiny.

But equally, those with the powers to investigate such abuses must also become fairer and more transparent in their dealings with alleged and actual instances of abuse. There are now too many examples of the highest principles of natural justice, and those who turn out to be falsely accused, being sacrificed to lengthy, unfair and intrusive processes justified on grounds of repulsion and expediency.

On Bishop George Bell’s birthday (February 4th) I walked next door to our Cathedral – a place Bell had worshipped in as an undergraduate and Research Fellow – just before Evensong. I lit a single candle, leaving it on the altar that is dedicated to Bishop Bell and his tireless work for reconciliation and peace-making.

I prayed for three groups of people: the victims of sexual abuse, and those perpetrate such abuse; the victims of false accusation and those who perpetrate such falsehoods; and for all those engaged in the work of healing and justice in this acutely painful pastoral and legal arena.

Bell, I think, might have prayed likewise. Much of his life was spent speaking out against reprisals. His was a lifetime working for reconciliation and concord. Such peace can come, if those in power will work even more earnestly for justice and truth – and against all abuses.

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church Oxford