The response of the Church of England to the Carlile Review: His Honour Charles Gibson

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?



In the Christian liturgy a form of confession comes early on in the service. One would reasonably expect Archbishops and Bishops to be very good at it, not only in services but also in their reflections on the decisions they make in their episcopal and everyday lives. I have considered the responses of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Chichester and the Bishop of Bath and Wells (the Church of England’s lead safeguarding bishop) to the Carlile Report in the light of this expectation.

Lord Carlile QC was commissioned to conduct a review into the way in which the Church dealt with the complaint made by ‘Carol’, first in 1995 and again in 2012 and 2013, that the late Bishop George Bell had sexually abused her on occasions in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In September 2015 the Church issued a formal apology to Carol, paid her a sum in damages and costs, and issued a public statement in terms which led to widespread reporting of the story, all to the effect that Bishop Bell had been guilty of appalling sexual abuse of a child – a conclusion which, though not expressly stated, was to be implied from the Bishop of Chichester’s “deep sorrow” while he acknowledged that “the abuse of children is a criminal act and a devastating betrayal of trust that should never occur in any situation, particularly the church”.  He referred to “the survivor’s courage in coming forward to report the abuse”.

By its statement the Church pinned the label ‘Abuser’ on Bishop Bell as securely as it pinned the labels ‘Survivor’ and ‘Victim’ on Carol.

The inevitable (and eminently foreseeable) publicity led in turn to widespread  and  passionate  responses  in  defence  of  the  high  reputation  of Bishop Bell which the Church had destroyed; and the Church was challenged to demonstrate the quality of the process which it had adopted and which had led to such a shocking result.

Lord Carlile’s terms of reference did not include determination of the truthfulness of Carol or the guilt or innocence of Bishop Bell [para 9]. In essence, he was required to examine the procedures which the Church followed, the way in which it obtained and assessed evidence, and whether it was right to make a public statement of apology and pay damages.

In relation to the complaint which Carol made in 1995 Lord Carlile found that the Church did not serve Carol well [para 96]. There can be no argument about that, and the Church’s shortcomings at that time were specifically acknowledged by the Bishop of Chichester in October 2015 and by the Bishop of Bath and Wells in his response to the Carlile report: he described the failures at that time as “lamentable”. Those failures consisted in offering pastoral support but taking the matter no further.

It is reasonable to expect the leaders of the Church, having dealt with the matter in recent years with the benefit of wisdom and practice accumulated over twenty years or so since the “lamentable” failures of its predecessors, to be equally willing to acknowledge and castigate any serious failings in their own conduct which Lord Carlile might identify in his report.

Lord Carlile made a large number of specific criticisms of the way in which the Church dealt with the complaint which was made in 2012 and 2013. He accepted that the errors which he identified had been made in good faith, and that they resulted from ‘oversteer’ in the direction of what were believed to be the best interests of Carol and of the Church, and without a calculated intention to destroy Bishop Bell’s reputation. This is unsurprising. It would be scandalous in the extreme if the Church had been found to have acted in bad faith with the specific intention of damaging (more accurately further damaging, having regard to the 2015 statement) Bishop Bell’s reputation. But equally unsurprisingly Lord Carlile found that in fact and in reality his reputation was destroyed in the eyes of all but his strongest supporters [para 119].

Lord Carlile made sixteen criticisms which fall into five categories.

Approach to the investigation

(1)  The allegation being serious and apparently credible, the Church implicitly accepted  it  without  serious  investigation  or  enquiry.  This  was  an inappropriate and impermissible approach [para 43]. There was an underlying acceptance of Carol’s case; she was referred to as the ‘victim’, not the ‘complainant’ [para 155(iii)].  The use of this term and ‘survivor’ contributed to decisions which might otherwise have been scrutinised more critically [para 274].

(2)      The  Church  concluded  that  the  needs  of  a  living  complainant  who, if truthful, was the victim of very serious criminal offences were of considerably more importance than the damage done by a possibly false allegation to a person who was no longer alive.  This approach was wrong in principle, for three separate reasons [paras 43-48].

(3)      No steps were taken to ensure that Bishop Bell’s interests were considered actively by an individual nominated for the purpose.   His reputation, and the need for a rigorous factual analysis of the case against him, were swept up by the focus on settling Carol’s claim and the perceived imperative of public transparency [paras 142, 155(ii), 159(i) and (ii), 188].  The Core Group never seriously engaged with protecting the legitimate interests of Bishop Bell [para 263].

(4)      The  reputation  of  the  Church  was  apparently  treated  as  of  greater importance than the justice of the case [para 155(i)].

Assembling and dealing with evidence and advice

(5)     The Church reached a conclusion without actively seeking the widest available evidence [paras 36, 140-141, 155(iv), 229]. Significant evidence was readily available [paras 14-220 (‘Pauline’), and 221-225 (Canon Adrian Carey)].  See also (10) below, and the detailed points made by the George Bell Group in its Review dated 18 March 2016.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, who had a very limited knowledge of the case, was wrong to assert in a debate in the House of Lords that the allegations had been “tested ….. so far as possible”.

(6)      The Core Group failed to appreciate the appropriate test for prosecution, viz whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction, and the duty of prosecutors to be impartial, following leads which might cast doubt on the complaint as well as those which are likely to support it [para 41].

(7)      The Core Group failed to give the considerable weight which should have been given to Bishop Bell’s good character, his inability to defend himself, and the lack of any other allegations [para 56].

(8)      Although counsel’s advice was obtained on the issue of which part of the Church (if any) would have to meet an award of damages, no specialist criminal lawyer was asked to advise on the strength of the evidence [para 170].  Such advice probably would have been to the effect that the prospects of a successful prosecution would have been low [para 171]; and it would have affected the approach to negotiations [para 172].

(9)      Only some members of the Core Group were shown the full report of the Consultant Psychiatrist who was consulted.  Had they all seen the report they would have seen his advice that the delays in reporting in this case were exceptional, that memory is not reliable over such long periods, and that the only way to establish the truth of the allegations would be through corroborating evidence [paras 178-181].

(10)   Evidence that Bishop Bell had access to many young girls during World War II (through his active participation in the Kindertransport scheme) and that this had given rise to no complaints was wrongly treated as not undermining the Core Group’s conclusion that the allegations against Bishop Bell were true [para 233].

Treatment of relevant people

(11)   The response of the Archbishop’s staff to the complaint which Carol made in September 2012 was inadequate [para 107]. (At the time of the complaint the Archbishop was The Most Revd and Rt Hon Rowan Williams; the present Archbishop was elected on 4 February 2013 and enthroned on 21 March 2013.)

(12)   Nothing was done to identify living relatives of Bishop Bell and to ensure that they were informed of the allegations, let alone asked for or offered guidance [paras 142, 207].

Constitution of the Core Group

(13)   There were unacceptable variations in membership and attendance at meetings of the Core Group [para 176].

The various criticisms of the establishment, structure and work of the Core Group were summarised in fourteen separate points in para 254 of the Report.

Settlement of the claim

(14)  Insufficient  attention  was  given  to  points  which  were  available  for use  in negotiations: the fact that Bishop Bell had been dead for over half a century and a fair trial would be extremely difficult; the absence of any corroborative or similar fact evidence; and that Carol had alleged abuse in

1995 but had not made a claim for many years afterwards [paras 146-147,155(v), 188, 190].

(15)   The Church was wrong to settle Carol’s complaint without an admission of liability, while knowingly and apparently deliberately destroying the reputation of Bishop Bell [para 52].

(16)  Lord Carlile stated that if the criticisms which he made were substantially valid the decision to settle the case in the form and manner which was followed was indefensibly wrong [para 258].  With the evidence which he found to be readily available a denial of liability would have been the right initial response by the Church [para 260].    There could have been an economic case for a ‘litigation risk’ settlement with an express denial of liability [para 261]. A confidentiality clause probably would have been complied with, and in the event of breach the repayment aspect of it could have been enforced, and cogent reasons for the settlement could have been given [para 262].   Had this been done the legitimate interests of Bishop Bell would have been protected, and he would not have been cast out into the moral wilderness in any statements by the Church [para 263]. This is what should have been done [para 283].

In reading the report all those who had participated in producing the result which led to the review should have considered carefully

(i)       the extent to which their acts and omissions were criticised,

(ii)     to what extent the situation in and after September 2015 would have been different had they acted in such a way as not to have attracted criticism; and consequently

(iii)    to whom and in what terms they should make apologies.

This duty should have been undertaken with humility and frankness, particularly in the light of the unqualified nature of the apology which had been offered for the acts and omissions of Bishop Eric Kemp, the then Bishop of Chichester, in and around 1995.

It is my firm conclusion that in view of the catalogue of faults which Lord Carlile found in the Church’s approach to dealing with Carol’s complaint and in its processes, the one word answer to (ii) is ‘massively’; and that the appropriate apologies would have been deeply penitential.

Bishop Peter Hancock, the Bishop of Bath and Wells, responded to the report on behalf of the Church.  As mentioned above, he used the word “lamentable” to describe the handling of the case in 1995. He rejected the recommendation of a confidentiality clause.  He accepted that the Church’s processes had been deficient in a number of respects. He claimed that much professional care and discussion were taken over agreeing the settlement and the decision to make it public; and that the Church had acted in good faith throughout with no calculated intention to damage Bishop Bell’s reputation.   He apologised for adding to the additional pain suffered by Carol and the Bishop’s surviving relatives by the handling of the case.

The Bishop of Chichester started his statement by asserting that Lord Carlile’s review was a demonstration of the Church’s commitment to equality of justice and transparency.    He apologised for failures in the work of the Core Group and for inadequate attention to the rights of the dead.   He accepted that there should be further consideration to the complexity of the case, such as what boundaries should be set to the principle of transparency. He described the principle of innocent until proven guilty as “emotive”.  He praised Carol’s dignity and integrity, whether she was technically a complainant, survivor or victim.

The Archbishop of Canterbury referred to Bishop Bell’s heroic stature, saying that the decision to publish his name was taken with immense reluctance. He  disagreed  with  the  recommendation  as  to  a  confidentiality  agreement. He observed that Lord Carlile did not seek to say whether Bishop Bell was responsible for the acts alleged.  He apologised for failures in the process.  He accepted that a significant cloud was left over Bishop Bell’s name, saying that no human being is entirely good or entirely bad, and that while Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero he is also accused of great wickedness.

The most striking aspect of this trio of responses is that in none of them is found any recognition of the radical and damning observations which Lord Carlile made about the Church’s approach to the matter: see (1) to (4) above.

Lord Carlile tactfully used the word “oversteer” to describe the Church’s approach and the detail of its work. An equally appropriate term is ‘bias’.

In the points which Lord Carlile made we can see manifest bias in favour of Carol and against Bishop Bell. This is consistent with the doctrine which has been adopted in recent years by, in particular, the police. (See, for example, the recent case of R v Allen, where the officer in the case not only failed to review the complainant’s telephone records, which served to exonerate the defendant, but also asserted that they contained nothing relevant to the issues in the case. In the light of this case and others it seems that there is now a prospect that this intrinsically unjust principle is being abandoned.)  Widely criticised for failing to take seriously complaints of sexual abuse and to deal sensitively with those complaining of it, the police adopted a principle that such complainants were always to be believed and were to be assured that they were believed. This has led inexorably to an inherent disbelief in the alleged abuser; and in practice there has been shown in many cases a sharp contrast between diligence in pursuing lines of enquiry likely to support a complaint and a lackadaisical approach to the equally important duty of pursuing lines of enquiry which may cast doubt on it. This is a duty owed in law by the prosecution in a criminal case. I suggest that the duty is equally owed by all those responsible for dealing with complaints of serious misconduct, not least the Church.

Regrettably, the three responses show not a hint of recognition of this duty; and the damning indictment of the breach of it has been lightly brushed aside by prelates who are all too keen to show pride that their “good faith” has been recognised. All that this means is that they did not set out deliberately to destroy Bishop Bell’s reputation. But this is not much of a point in the Church’s favour when that result was eminently foreseeable, indeed virtually certain, as the consequence of the Church’s approach; and we have seen that this approach was replicated throughout the investigation.

Moreover, the statement by the Bishop of Chichester that Lord Carlile’s review was “a demonstration of the Church’s commitment to equality of justice” is startlingly inaccurate.  On the contrary, it is a demonstration of the Church’s devotion, not to the principle of justice simpliciter, but to the fashionable but misconceived principle of justice for the particular class of persons who claim to be victims and/or survivors.   As this case vividly demonstrates, the application of this principle foreseeably, if not inevitably, makes victims of people such as Bishop Bell and those who honour his reputation.

In a very broad way the statements did recognise that there had been faults in the process of investigation.  But in view of the wide range of Lord Carlile’s criticisms it was inappropriately boastful of Bishop Hancock to refer to “much professional care and  discussion”.

Further, although the Bishop of Chelmsford had no more than a walk-on part, he had no justification for saying that the allegation had been “tested ….. so far as possible”. This is an example of the Church’s readiness to be reckless in its self serving response to criticism.

The statements showed no recognition of the wholly different result which would have come about had the Church proceeded in the proper manner, based on sound principles, clearly described by Lord Carlile.

It would have been clear that there was not a single shred of corroborating evidence, in circumstances in which, in spite of the passage of time, such evidence could have been found if it existed. Proper attention to the advice of the Consultant Psychiatrist 6 would have led to the conclusion that it would be wrong to admit any possibility of Bishop Bell’s guilt. For all Carol’s honest belief in the accuracy of her story, there was no good reason for the Church to share that belief. Quite simply, her memory could not be relied upon after such a long lapse of time, and the absence of any corroboration demonstrated that her memory was at fault.

It was therefore culpably wrong of the Bishop of Chichester to equivocate as to whether Carol was “technically” a complainant, survivor or victim; and the Archbishop of Canterbury was equally culpable in qualifying his recognition of Bishop Bell’s high reputation with the gratuitous comment that “he is also accused of great wickedness”.

It appears to me that so wedded is he to the fundamentally flawed approach which Lord Carlile described that he cannot contemplate going any further than admitting that it is equally likely that Bishop Bell was an abuser as it is that he was not.

Moreover, it was discreditable of him to support this stance with the assertion that “Lord Carlile does not seek to say whether George Bell was in fact responsible for the acts about which complaint was made”.  Of course he does not do so: this question was outside his terms of reference, as he recognised [para 9].

While the Bishops of Bath and Wells and of Chichester in their responses appeared to disclose a measure of willingness to look again at what the Bishop of Chichester called “the principle of transparency”, the Archbishop makes it clear enough that for him this principle trumps all others.  It is eminently foreseeable that other people, whether of high reputation or not, will be sacrificed on the altar of transparency before his archiepiscopate comes to an end.

Reading and analysing the material in this case leaves me as a lifelong Anglican with a deep sense of sadness that between my sense of justice, formed and developed over a long period in the law, and that of at least some of the leaders of my Church there is “a great gulf fixed” [Luke 16.26].

I fear that, unless we see a recognition of, and repentance for, the great wrong which has been done to Bishop Bell, to those who treasure memories of him and those who admire him for what he did for the Church and for the moral and spiritual life of the country, that gulf will remain unbridgeable.

His Honour Charles Gibson

December 2017


Since I wrote the Analysis just before Christmas 2017 widespread criticism of the Church’s response to Lord Carlile’s review has been published. Prominent among this body of criticism was a letter dated 17 January 2018 and signed by seven eminent historians.

They asserted that the Church’s response involved perpetuation of a single allegation, and that this flew in the face of the review, which had devastated the Church’s claim that its view was based on an investigation which was “very thorough”. They emphasised that the allegation against Bishop Bell was not only wholly uncorroborated but was contradicted by considerable and available circumstantial material which any historian would consider credible. They claimed that the allegation was unsupported and unsupportable, asserting that there was no credible evidence that Bishop Bell was a paedophile.

In a letter dated 19 January 2018 the Archbishop of Canterbury, writing with the support of the Bishops of Chichester and of Bath and Wells, rejected the contention that the Church should amend its response to the Carlile review.

The letter contains a number of points which in my opinion are wholly without merit.

The Archbishop made much of the Church’s having taken the allegation seriously, implying that in the past the Church had failed to treat such allegations with the seriousness which they deserved.  I hope that he was not implying that the historians or any other of those who have expressed criticism have suggested that any such allegation need not be taken seriously, for any such implication would be insulting. In making so much of the seriousness of the Church’s intent and its determination to listen carefully and sympathetically to those making allegations the Archbishop is pushing at an open door. None of the critics would suggest otherwise.

Taking an allegation seriously involves investigating it thoroughly, and the Archbishop appears to persist in the contention that the Church passed this test, in spite of Lord Carlile’s unequivocal opinion that it did not: see in particular items (1), (2), (3), (5), (7), (8), (9), (10) and (13) in my Analysis. For him and the Bishops it seems that performance of the duty to treat the complainant seriously absolved the Church from the equally important duties to avoid bias and ‘oversteer’, to seek out and investigate all potentially relevant evidence, and to be prepared not to shirk from drawing the conclusion to which the evidence inexorably leads.

In this case that conclusion was clear.  It was ignored because of the Church’s incorrect approach to the matter, and as a result of a particular example of the shoddiness of its processes.

Not all members of the Core Group, which in any event had a variable membership, saw the full report of the Consultant Psychiatrist whom the Church consulted. Those who did see it cannot have read it thoroughly.  His advice was unequivocal.  Memory is not reliable over the long periods which elapsed in this case, and the only way to establish the truth of the product of such memory is through corroborating evidence.   In its investigation the Church failed to seek such evidence.   Had it done so it would have found none.   Moreover, as the historians point out, there was a wealth of persuasive circumstantial evidence which was not neutral: it contradicted and undermined the allegation.

The Church has shirked the difficult, but necessary, task of explaining to Carol that after thorough investigation of her complaint her honesty was accepted, but that the Church could not in good conscience and with fairness rely on her memory. The reasons for that conclusion could have been explained to her in a pastoral way, without derogation from the policy of taking allegations seriously.

The Archbishop states that “claims are from time to time dismissed because we do not accept the allegations. However, we do take all allegations seriously”. That being the case, why was this claim not dismissed? On the expert evidence, it was not to be accepted unless it was corroborated. The Archbishop, in a comment which is as patronising as it is inaccurate, suggests that the historians in their letter seem to confuse the two standards of proof, beyond reasonable doubt and on a balance of probabilities. The point which he wilfully ignores is that the evidence in this case was such that no reasonable tribunal, applying the latter standard which all agree was the appropriate one, could have concluded that Bishop Bell was guilty in any respect.

That conclusion would have disposed of the allegation. Once a tribunal has found that an allegation is unreliable it has no business to give it further currency. The Archbishop compounds the wrong he and others have already done by repeating that Bishop Bell is “accused of great wickedness” and that a “significant cloud” still hangs over him.

It is disturbing to see the Archbishop recording that “the Diocese of Chichester was given legal advice to make a settlement based on the civil standard of proof”.

Maybe it was; but, as Lord Carlile observed, legal advice was not sought on the strength of the evidence. The advice must have been tendered on the basis of the conclusions of the Core Group, which, as has been clearly demonstrated, were fatally flawed.

On the insupportable basis that the allegation has a continuing validity the Archbishop insists that to achieve transparency Bishop Bell had to be named. What happens in those cases, which he says do occur, when claims are dismissed, as this claim should have been?  Is the alleged perpetrator against whom there is no reliable evidence to be hung out to dry as Bishop Bell continues to be?

If this is the case, the sooner the Archbishop treats Lord Carlile’s opinion and recommendation with the seriousness which he accorded to Carol’s allegation the better.

Unless he does so, any pronouncement of his as to where justice lies in any situation is not to be treated with respect by those, whether or not they are members of the Church which he leads, who are seriously concerned with justice.

His Honour Charles Gibson

23 January 2018