With the recent abuse scandals in the glittering worlds of cinema, music and journalism, it’s easy to forget that old home of horrifying sex offences: the church. But today, the Church of England returned to the spotlight with the arrival of a report into the handling of a sexual abuse complaint made against Bishop George Bell.
If you’d just taken a cursory glance at the headlines you would probably think a Bishop you’ve never heard of was wrongly accused of being a paedophile. "Church of England smeared bishop as a child abuser on inadequate and unconvincing evidence from just one woman," said the Daily Mail. "Calls for 'Bishop Bell' name to be restored to #Eastbourne school in wake of @c_of_e apology" tweeted BBC Sussex. You’d likely think some new evidence had been found which proves his innocence – but this is not the case.
Bishop Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, was one of the most celebrated clergymen of the 20th century. He was a personal supporter of the German resistance against Hitler, at a time when doing so was seen as appeasement, and gave major support to refugee Jewish children from the Kindertransport during WWII, housing many in the Chichester church. He died in 1958, but his reputation grew, with many schools and buildings named after him.
In 1995, a woman who – to protect her identity – is referred to as Carol made a written complaint to the current Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp. In it, she said that five decades earlier, when she was between the ages of five and nine, she was abused by Bishop Bell on visits to the church. She was essentially fobbed off at that point, but in 2012 she repeated the claims in a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury and they were taken up for investigation.
The crimes she accused Bell of are of the most serious nature, and include Bell wriggling with her on his lap, touching, digital penetration, attempted penile penetration and ejaculation in front of her. She claims the Bishop would say, "This is our little secret: it is God’s wish," and that when he ejaculated he would say: "Suffer little children to come unto me."
The claims were largely investigated by an internal church committee known as the Core Group, not by the police or the CPS. Eventually, that committee decided to publicly apologise to Carol on behalf of the church and award her £16,800 in damages. In the years that followed, Bell’s reputation was tarnished and his name was removed from many of the buildings that once bore it. This outraged a group of establishment types, who found it horrifying that the name of a good man should be besmirched. Chief among them was the conservative columnist Peter Hitchens, who demanded justice for the late Bell and succeeded in helping an independent report that reviewed the way the case was handled.
That review was published today, hence all the news reports, and it does have serious criticisms of the way the church handled the case. There were missed opportunities to investigate evidence, members of the group had "no coherent notion of their roles or what was expected of them", no criminal law expert was instructed to be part of nor to advise the group, and it’s felt that, if a criminal case was to have been made against Bell, there would not have been enough evidence for a strong likelihood of conviction (even though the bar for criminal conviction is higher than needed by the Core Group), among other critiques.
The report’s overarching opinion is that the church took the "easy" route by offering the apology because Bishop Bell is dead, and they felt it would be better to smear a dead man’s reputation than to put a living woman’s sexual assault claim through rigorous investigation.
However, the report is at pains to repeat, over and over again, that it is not an investigation into the legitimacy of Carol’s claims.
“I have not considered whether or not Carol is a truthful complainant: she may well be.”
“The view that a [criminal] prosecution would have failed does not mean that Carol has not told the truth”
“The decision to settle the case in the form and manner followed was indefensibly wrong. In giving that view, again I emphasise that it is not part of my terms of reference to venture an opinion as to whether Carol was telling the truth.”
Crucially, it talks about how the church failed Carol by failing to properly investigate her claim, which may well have led to vindication.
“I have concluded that the Church did not serve Carol well in 1995, whatever the truth or otherwise of her allegations. As Bishop Bell’s successor, Bishop Kemp should have met Carol, or at the very least appointed a responsible person to meet her. He should have set in train a genuine process of inquiry and assessment. I find that the Church failed Carol in 1995.”
It quotes a psychiatrist report taken during the original investigation that says:
“I have no reason to believe that the material allegations are a conscious fabrication.”
The same report raises the possibility of false-memories occurring in a woman of Carol’s age about her childhood as one possible explanation, alongside the possibility that Carol is telling the truth.
So the Church has lessons to learn, and in doing so they can better help victims of abuse.
Yet, this has not been how the story has been reported or commented upon.
Hitchens' Mail column from last night, for example, says he hopes the report’s findings mean that "justice will tomorrow flow down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream" – as if the report speaks to a vindication for Bell, rather than a sensitive situation about serious rape and child abuse that has still not been resolved.
The statement from the George Bell Group which claims the report "thoroughly vindicated the reputation of a man revered for his integrity across the Christian church" as though the report provides new evidence that Carol was lying, which it does not.
You might expect that from pro-Bell writers, but even on the BBC they have taken the report to mean that Bell is likely innocent. On the Today Programme this morning, presenter John Humphrys introduced the item on Bell by saying:
“The church of England is in the dock this morning, charged with destroying the reputation of a bishop by naming him as a paedophile...on the say-so of a single uncorroborated allegation”
He then threw to Martin Bashir, the BBC religious correspondent, who said the report, "speaks to vindication for those friends and supporters of the late George Bell", and Professor Chandler, Bishop’s biographer, who had not read the full report, but said the fact that the "good name of a very courageous figure has been reduced by his own church is one the of the most tragic and deplorable things I’ve ever come across".
Humphrys finished by asking Chandler whether it was now possible to restore the Bishop’s reputation, leading the listener to believe that the Bishop had been cleared.
We live in a society where, whenever possible, we believe victims of rape and child abuse, knowing – more often than not – they won’t have much primary evidence to support their claims. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein, one positive to have come from the many, many allegations is the way in which society has, by and large, sided with the victims rather than the alleged perpetrators – even when the perpetrators seem like nice guys and deny everything. Yet, in the old English backwaters of the Church, that same decency is not being afforded to Carol, who is still alive and having her own reputation unfairly tarnished today. It’s quite possible that the Church should have investigated further and not publicly condemned Bell without more consideration, but that does not necessarily mean that Carol was lying or that Bell was not a paedophile.
Underlying a lot of the thinking in both the report and the outrage from the George Bell Group is that no one else has come forward to accuse Bell. Indeed, he was surrounded by children from the Kindertransport during the war and at other points in his life. This is mentioned repeatedly throughout the report – almost implying that a paedophile is not a paedophile unless they have more than one victim. It should also be noted that people who are abused when they are under eight years old are statistically very unlikely to report it.
Carol is not a young starlet with a large Twitter following and a horde of feminist journalists defending her online; she is an anonymous OAP. For most young people this is a drab story about a world many of us know little of, so the likes of Hitchens have been allowed to dominate the coverage of this story with little pushback. There is no campaign group supporting the rights and life of Carol.
After Hitchens and others first started protesting the decision to compensate Carol, she gave an interview in the Brighton Argus, in which she said that those defending Bell "don’t know how I feel. If it happened to them, how would they feel? It’s almost like they’re saying I should have kept my mouth shut and not said anything. Just do that and his good name goes on, you understand?"
The results of today’s report have done little to change the feeling that a group of old Tories in the Cotswolds are celebrating the silencing of a victim.