A Late Bishop’s Troubling Sin

By John Martin

News that the Rt. Rev. George Bell (1883-1958), former Bishop of Chichester, was a pedophile has shaken the Church of England, and already there is debate whether public commemorations of him should be erased. He has been one of the most revered names among 20th-century leaders of the Church of England.

Bell is remembered on Oct. 3, the anniversary of his death, on the Church of England’s calendar, the nearest Anglicans come to recognizing someone as a saint. He is lionized as a pioneer ecumenist and supporter of the German Confessing Church during the Nazi era. He had close links with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), who was executed for a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

The Rt. Rev. Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, released a lengthy statement Oct. 22 in which he expressed remorse for child sexual assaults committed by George Bell. The apology indicated that the church has reached a settlement with an individual whom Bell abused as a young child. The individual’s sex and name remain anonymous.

The angst is deepened by revelations that the survivor first approached the Diocese of Chichester with allegations in 1995, to no avail; the victim approached Archbishop Justin Welby in 2013.

Bishop Warner said in his statement that the response of the church “fell a long way short” of what should have happened and was a “devastating betrayal of trust.” Police sources now say the evidence available would certainly have justified Bell’s arrest.

Tracey Emmott, the survivor’s solicitor, said a “new culture of openness in the Church of England is genuinely refreshing,” but her client remained bitter that the original complaint was not heard properly.

“For my client, the compensation finally received does not change anything,” Emmott said. “How could any amount of money possibly compensate for childhood abuse?”

Bell was considered a favored candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury after the untimely death of Archbishop William Temple in 1944. Archbishop Rowan Williams is on record saying he thought Bell would have been a better choice than Geoffrey Fisher, who was translated from London.

He had all the credentials: chaplain to Archbishop Randall Davidson and later Dean of Canterbury. He had a high profile role as an initiator and promoter of the still-young ecumenical movement, in particular the influential Life and Work project and later the World Council of Churches.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill blocked his path to Canterbury. Both in the press and House of Lords speeches, Bell had opposed Churchill’s war policies of bombing German cities.

Around Chichester, where Bell was bishop from 1929 to 1958, two buildings commemorate him: a boarding house of Bishop Luffa School and George Bell House, situated in the lane just before the entrance to the cathedral gardens. A charity representing survivors of abuse has already taken up the issue of renaming these sites.

Arun Arora, the Church of England’s national director of communications, confirmed that the removal of Bell’s name from the Church of England Calendar required a General Synod resolution. Parishes have the option of omitting Bell’s name from their prayers on Oct. 3, but campaigners are unlikely to leave the matter there.

The Diocese of Chichester has been the center of a series of high-profile sex-abuse cases involving clergy. Most recent was the jailing of the Rt. Rev. Peter Ball, suffragan Bishop of Lewes, this month for assaults against 18 boys. Ball had been allowed to resign his subsequent job as Bishop of Gloucester, and he escaped prosecution for 22 years.

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