One cannot believe in the probity of an organisation or institution that fails such a vital test and core value of innocent until proved guilty.
Perhaps the greatest shock in reading Timothy Briden’s report is the extent to which the additional accusations raised by people other than Carol, were so evidently suspicious at first sight, and became transparently false on further sensible investigation.
One witness has his mother saying to him (hearsay of course) that she interrupted Bishop Bell having energetic sexual intercourse with another man over the bonnet of a large rolls Royce in the garage after she answered a telephone call for the bishop and went looking for him.
Not only had the bishop been dead for 9 years (until he later revised the date on being told that) but the bishop at the revised date would have been 72, and in rather frail health. His capacity for engaging in energetic sodomy over the bonnet of a Roll Royce (which he didn’t in fact own) was as unlikely as someone other than a secretary or chaplain answering the phone and then looking for the bishop in the garage.
Briden concludes rather pithily “Bishop Bell was physically incapable of the misconduct attributed to him.” (31).
A woman named ‘Alison’ also accuses Bishop bell of interfering with he sexually while purportedly sitting on his knee. The difficulty with her evidence 70 years after the event was that she wandered off at tangents, self-contradicted, and crucially when asked if she really had been touched in the crotch replied “..it was round my tummy and I suppose sort of in my crotch, but that’s about as specific as I could be.”
So the tummy, not the crotch then?….
Briden referred back to the Psychiatrist Professor Maden quoted at paragraph 178 of the Carlile review.
“Memory is not reliable over such long periods of time, Recall is an active mental process in which memories become distorted with time to fit the individual’s beliefs, needs and values.
Both the content and the meaning of recollections change with time. Events can and do acquire significance years later that they did not have at the time.”
Then there was the journalist Sian Hewitt who purported in the local newspaper to have interviewed a former psychiatric nurse, who supposedly knew adults who had been abused by Bell. Having written and published this, she disappeared and no one has been able to contact her.
What is seriously alarming reading these accusations is how they act to corroborate the original accusation but without any merit whatsoever. Is it really possible that such a reputation, of a bishop like Bell, or anyone in fact, could be posthumously discarded on the basis of these fits of septic imagination and false memory?
Which brings us to Carol, the basis of the assassination of Bishop Bell.
The Bishop of Chichester forbad Timothy Briden to consider Carol’s evidence. There are indications in his report that he was itching to deal with it, but was forbidden and didn’t want to have his findings in defence of Bell undermined should he have allowed himself to.
The issue with Carol’s evidence is that it is seriously fragile to several accusations. The first is the unreliability of anyone’s memory over that period of time; the second is that there may possibly have been a sexual predator in the close who wore some kind of uniform, and there are any number of reasons adduced in the Carlile report why it would not have been Bishop Bell.
An impartial analysis of the Church of England’s handling of this is that the Core group were simply appallingly shoddy and incompetent. And on the basis of their negligence and incompetence in a fit of self-righteous virtue signalling chest thumping, the Church sacrificed Bishop Bell’s reputation on the altar not only of political correctness (to put it at its most succinct) but also because this acted as a cheap way to by virtue signalling credit in the public space.
It might well have been the right thing to do to listen courteously to Carol, so sympathise deeply with the pain of her apparent memories, and to pay her the utmost sincere attention in her distress, such as it was.
But not then to have publicly discarded Bishop Bell’s posthumous reputation without due process, proper investigation and against the burden of proof of either criminal or civil liability.
Even now Bishop Bell deserves to be wholly and complexly exonerated. His memory deserves to be cleared. And the failure to do so threatens every official member of the Church of England as an organisation from the present (and future) Archbishops down to the humblest Lay Reader or Church Warden.
Different voice in the Churches still fail. Martin Warner (one might say almost ‘unusually’) appears to me to be the only one to gain some, if not much, credit.
Cannot bring himself to exonerate Bell. He apologises fulsomely over process failures, but his fixation on the virtue of victimhood traps him fatally.
“We did not manage our response to the original allegation with the consistency, clarity or accountability that meets the high standards rightly demanded of us. I recognise the hurt that has been done as a consequence. This was especially painful for Bishop Bell’s surviving relatives, colleagues and supporters, and to the vast number of people who looked up to him as a remarkable role model, not only in the Diocese of Chichester but across the United Kingdom and globally. I apologise profoundly and unconditionally for the hurt caused to these people by the failures in parts of the process and take responsibility for this failure.
However, it is still the case that there is a woman who came forward with a serious allegation relating to an historic case of abuse and this cannot be ignored or swept under the carpet. We need to care for her and listen to her voice.”
No Archbishop, read Lord Carlile’s report again and more carefully.
Despite the obvious contradiction which is neither a dilemma and certainly not a paradox, the Archbishop wants to have his self-righteous cake and eat it:
“This very difficult issue therefore leaves the church with an impossible dilemma which I hope people with different perspectives on it will try to understand.
Finally, I want to make it very clear that Bishop George Bell is one of the most important figures in the history of the Church of England in the 20th century and his legacy is undoubted and must be upheld.”
The Safeguarding Team lapse into standard progressive mea culpa which means nothing:
“Lessons have already been learnt from this case and we have apologised for mistakes made in our processes.”
How they have the insensitive crassness to resort to that broken and redundant phrase beggars belief. But they do.
Warner comes closest to a judicious, sensible and honest apology, but in the very end can’t bring himself to make a distinction between an innocent reputation and an ancient, if deeply felt, unreliable memory.
“In particular, we have learned that the boundaries of doubt and certainty have to be stated with great care, that the dead and those who are related to them have a right to be represented, and that there must be a balanced assessment of the extent to which it would be in the public interest to announce the details of any allegation.
We recognise the hurt that has been done to all who have been directly involved, including the family of George Bell and those who continue to respect his achievements, as a result of the areas where we have fallen short. We apologise profoundly and sincerely for our shortcomings in this regard
“We have all been diminished by this case. The legitimate quest for certainty has been defeated by the nature of the case and the passage of time. Bishop Bell cannot be proven guilty, nor can it be safely claimed that the original complainant has been discredited. There is an uncertainty which cannot be resolved. We ask those who hold opposing views on this matter to recognize the strength of each other’s commitment to justice and compassion.”
This is as close as poor Bishop Bell and those who treasure the memory of a good and inspirational bishop who had various types of calumny flung at him posthumously, none of which could outweigh the weight of the precious and vital ethical value par excellence, that any of us are INNOCENT, until and unless we are proved guilty.
It is to the deep shame of the Church of England that it fails to uphold that ancient, Christian and civilised value. One cannot believe in the probity of an organisation or institution that fails such a vital test and core value of ‘innocent until proved guilty’.