Open letter from three former judges to the Archbishop of Canterbury: 6 February 2018

6 February 2018

Dear Archbishop,

We are retired judges who have studied the review of Lord Carlile of Berriew QC into the way in which the Church of England conducted an inquiry into an allegation made by a woman now in her seventies that the late Bishop George Bell sexually assaulted her on many occasions during the late 1940s and the early 1950s, when she was a young girl.  We have considered the responses to the review made by you and the Bishops of Chichester and Bath and Wells.

We are grievously disappointed at your failure to show proper regret and to apologise for the great harm and injustice which the Church, through the catalogue of errors identified by Lord Carlile, has caused.

The most serious failure in your responses is the absence of any recognition of the radical and damning observations which Lord Carlile made about the Church’s approach to the investigation.  He found that:

  • (i) The allegation was accepted without serious investigation or enquiry: this was an inappropriate and impermissible approach. Throughout the terms ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ were used instead of ‘complainant’.
  • (ii) The needs of a living complainant were treated as being considerably more important than the damage done by a possibly false allegation to a person who was dead.
  • (iii) Bishop Bell’s reputation, and the need for a rigorous factual analysis of the case against him, were swept up by the focus on settling the complainant’s claim and the perceived imperative of transparency.
  • (iv) The Church’s reputation was apparently treated as of greater importance than the justice of the case.

Lord Carlile used the word ‘oversteer’ to describe the Church’s approach.  A stronger, but equally appropriate word is bias.

The responses made by you and the Bishops contain no hint of regret for the Church’s fundamental failure to do justice in this case. Your interest was confined to doing what you saw as justice for the complainant, and to the reputation of the Church. This is shameful.

Further, you have shown no recognition of the fact, clearly demonstrated by Lord Carlile, that had the Church proceeded fairly and properly a completely different result would have ensued.  The Consultant Psychiatrist retained by the Church gave unequivocal advice that the delays in making the allegation were exceptional, that memory is unreliable over the long periods which elapsed in this case, and that the only way to establish the truth of the allegations would be through corroborating evidence.  The Church did not look diligently for such evidence.  Had it done so it would have found none.  Moreover, it would have found evidence from available witnesses which undermined the allegation.

Flying in the face of these findings, you on behalf of the Church have chosen to leave entirely open the question whether the complainant is a victim and survivor, and Bishop Bell the perpetrator of ‘great wickedness’, to quote your own statement. Reliance has discreditably been placed on the fact that Lord Carlile made no finding as to Bishop Bell’s guilt or innocence. The Church was astute to prevent him from doing so, through the wording of his terms of reference.

Serious injustice was done in this case, and it caused great and possibly irreparable harm.  Genuine apology and repentance were called for.  Neither is shown in the statements made on the Church’s behalf.  Instead there is an inappropriate pride in the finding that the Church acted in good faith, which means no more than that there was no malice or dishonesty, and an unseemly pride in its policy of transparency, in spite of Lord Carlile’s observations as to its limitations.

The prophet Micah pronounced the fundamental requirement ‘to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God’. The Church in its investigation certainly failed on the first two counts. In their self-serving responses to Lord Carlile’s review you and the Bishops have compounded those failures, and in addition you have failed on the third count. This does you and the Church which you lead no credit at all.

Yours sincerely,

His Honour Charles Gibson

His Honour John W. Bullimore

His Honour Alan Pardoe QC