In his response to the report Archbishop Welby has chosen to emphasise that Lord Carlile has not sought to say whether George Bell was in fact responsible for the alleged assaults. That is not surprising, it was no part of Lord Carlile’s terms of reference from the Church to say whether Bell was innocent or not. But his devastating criticism of the Church’s process shows that Archbishop Welby was wrong in 2016 when he described the investigation as ‘very thorough’ and the finding of abuse as clearly correct on the balance of probabilities. A close reading of the detail of Lord Carlile’s report can only lead to the conclusion that he has thoroughly vindicated the reputation of man revered for his integrity across the Christian Church.
It is no wonder that the Church’s investigation has been compared by Lord Carlile to the discredited police investigation of Lords Brittan and Bramall. The Safeguarding Group appear to have gone about their work looking for reason to doubt the veracity of the complainant. A proper investigation would have looked to see whether they could find independent corroboration of the complaint. That Bishop Bell had been dead for over half a century did not justify depriving him of the presumption of innocence or of due process. As Sir Richard Henriques pointed out in his report for the Metropolitan Police on historic sex offence investigations, the policy of believing victims shifts the burden of proof onto the suspect and ‘has and will generate miscarriages of justice on a considerable scale’.
The misconceived approach of the Safeguarding Group, described by Lord Carlile as neither fair nor equitable, was aggravated by the failure of their investigation to reveal easily discoverable evidence:
- They failed to speak to Bell’s domestic chaplain during two of the four relevant years, who lived with the Bells in the Bishop’s Palace. He could have explained to them precisely why the complainant’s account did not add up;
- Nor did they speak to Bell’s biographer, the historian Professor Andrew Chandler, who has studied the layout of the Bishop’s Palace at the relevant time;
- They did not interview former choristers of Chichester Cathedral who might be thought to have been aware if Bell had been a paedophile. Eleven of them wrote to the Times complaining that the Bishop had been smeared to suit a public relations need.
Lord Carlile’s report has now left the Church with many searching questions, including how best to remedy the many defects in the current Practice Guidance so as to ensure that such an injustice can never recur. But most important of all, the time has now come for the Church of England to redress, without hesitation or qualification, the immense damage done to the fine reputation of a man who served it for so long and with such courage and devotion. Those institutions which summarily removed Bell’s name from their titles should now fully restore it.
Archbishop Welby, who has said in his response to Lord Carlile that he realises that ‘a significant cloud’ is left over Bell’s name, should join with the Bishop of Chichester in removing that cloud. The Church deprived the Bishop of due process, they should not deprive him of the presumption of innocence. There is not just no fire, there is no smoke. We share Lord Carlile’s disappointment that the Church has rejected the protection of innocence as a clear and general principle.
As Bishop Bell said in a broadcast to the German people in December 1945, now engraved in the Bell Chapel at Christ Church in Oxford: ‘Without repentance and without forgiveness, there can be no regeneration.’