Safeguarding & the presumption of innocence. Welby, Machiavelli and George Bell.

There was something truly shocking about the police leaking the news of their raid on Cliff Richards house to the BBC, who then made sure a helicopter was in the sky filming their break in. The presumption of innocenceuntil proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt is such an important part of our culture. It is a key element in protecting the individual and the standards of public truth.

 It protects me; it protects you; it was supposed to protect Cliff Richard. He wrote 

 “I fear I will forever be tainted by the lurid and intrusive coverage I received. I have had to bring civil proceedings to obtain redress for these appalling invasions of my privacy by the police and the BBC. But that can never undo all the damage I have suffered. It would have been so much better never to have been in this position at all.”

 He wasn’t the only one to suffer from theirresponsibility of people who didn’t understand how important the principle was. 

 It happened also, to Lord Britten, who was alive at the time, and posthumously to Edward Heath. There is a justification, but it is a dangerous one. The reason is that by publicising an arrest evidence can be gathered to convict criminals. I’m sure that is true. But it is also an insidious example of the dangerous idea that the end justify the means.

 This idea was associated most famously with Machiavelli who was notorious for putting power before principle. At a minor level, people use the idea to justify lying on their CV to get a job; at a major level, it led to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

 Of all the places and the people who should understand the need for the presumption of innocence and that the end never justifies the means, the Church should top the list. Sadly, when it came to the reputation of the saintly bishop of Chichester George Bell, the Archbishop of Canterbury sided with Machiavelli.

 It was deeply distressing that an elderly woman (Carol) should have suffered from such disturbing memories of abuse from her childhood. It was quite right that she should be taken seriously and listened to with dignity and attention. But the memories didn’t make it clear who the man abused her was, (she thought it might be Bishop Bell) and all the psychiatric evidence is that memories, however we cherish them or are even disturbed by them, are not as reliable as we think they are.

 On the basis of this allegation they destroyed Bell’s reputation in public.

 The strategy was partly justified in order to see if there were any other allegations out there, and partly, tragically, because it hoped that by sacrificing George Bell it might make up for the Church’s appalling record of failing to take sexual abuse seriously.

 As a result widespread protest against this, Lord Carlile was asked to examine the process by which the Church evaluated the evidence. He came to the conclusion that it was both flawed and seriously incompetent. He also appeared to want to exonerate Bishop Bell completely but was restrained by his terms of reference

 That was when the ‘safeguarding’ response moved from incompetence to something much worse. 

 On being exposed in this way the Church safeguarding authorities started to insist that there were other allegations which justified their judgement. But when they were challenged as towhat weight they might have, they refused to say what they were. Eventually, again after widespread protest, another investigation was commissioned to see what they were, this time by Timothy Briden. He has just published his report.

 It turns out that none of them stood up to a moment’s scrutiny. The most dramatic, which was as so often, hearsay, came from a man who said hismother, a cleaner in the Palace once told him she had answered the phone and gone looking for Bishop Bell, only to find him engaged in energetic sex with another man in the garage over the bonnet of his Rolls Royce. It turned out that cleaners never answered the phones, Bell didn’t own a Rolls Royce, would not have frequented the garage and had been dead 20 years at the alleged date. So the accuser arbitrarily changed the date to another one – at which point Bell was elderly, in poor health and had trouble walking let alone what he was being accused of.

 Another allegation came from a reporter who had written in a local paper that she had interviewed a psychiatric nurse who claimed she had been abused by Bell as a child. Both Lord Carlile and Timothy Briden tried to find the reporter and the nurse. Both had disappeared and couldn’t be found.

 And so it went on.

 Finally the Archbishop has been forced, by the facts, to give a kind of apology. But he couldn’t bring himself to lift entirely the cloud of suspicion he and his colleagues has poisoned poor George Bell’s reputation with. What was offered was a ‘qualified apology’. The Bible however is stuffed with advice about the sanctity of the reputation and the sin of bearing false witness. 

 Perhaps both he and the safeguarding officials might bear in mind that safeguarding cuts both ways. The presumption of innocence is itself a safeguarding as well as a moral principle. Machiavelli is as dangerous as he is alluring, and that applies to bishops and anyone else in public office as much as it does to politicians.

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