Church schools and other institutions that expunged the name of the late Bishop of Chichester have a sensitive issue to consider. A report from an inquiry into how the Church of England dealt with accusations against the Rt. Rev. George Bell has criticized the authorities involved for a rush to judgment.
George Bell, who died in 1958, has been regarded as possessing an aura of saintliness as a theologian, hymn-writer, ecumenist, and fearless voice in public life. He was Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958 and is venerated on the church’s calendar on Oct. 3.
Bell was an associate of the martyred German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and supported the German Confessing Church during the Nazi years. It is believed he lost his chance to be elevated as Archbishop of Canterbury because he publicly opposed bombing German cities, a stance that angered Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Bell’s reputation was harmed in 2015 in accusations that he abused a girl from the time she was 5. Several public figures have lobbied for the case to be reviewed. The church appointed Lord Carlile, a prominent peer and lawyer, to review the case.
Carlile told a press conference that Bell had been “hung out to dry,” there were many errors in the church’s process, and some obvious lines of inquiry were not pursued. His report concluded that the core group established by the church to consider the claims “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides.”
“The church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when it had been too slow to recognize that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect over-steered in this case,” the report said.
“In other words, there was a rush to judgment: the church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the bishop. Such rights should not be treated as having been extinguished on death.”
Carlile added: “In my view, the church concluded that the needs of a living complainant who, if truthful, was a victim of very serious criminal offences were of considerably more importance than the damage done by a possibly false allegation to a person who was no longer alive.”
He said the purpose of his review was not to determine the truthfulness of the complainant, whose name is Carol, or whether Bell was guilty. His remit was to examine the church’s processes and determine whether it was right to make a public statement of apology and pay damages.
The word of the complainant was accepted “without serious investigation or inquiry,” he said. “I have concluded this was an inappropriate and impermissible approach.”
The Rt. Rev. Peter Hancock, lead safeguarding bishop, said: “It is clear from the report … that our processes were deficient in a number of respects, in particular the process for seeking to establish what may have happened. For that we apologize. Lessons can and have been learned about how we could have managed the process better.”
Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, in whose name the 2015 statement was issued, apologised for the church’s failures. “The good deeds that Bishop George Bell did were recognized internationally,” he said. “They will stand the test of time. In every other respect, we have all been diminished by the case that Lord Carlile has reviewed.”
The Carlile report is seen as vindication by high-profile figures who fought to salvage Bell’s reputation. Peter Hitchens, a prominent journalist who campaigned on Bell’s behalf, said the church had “convicted Bishop Bell in a kangaroo court of chaotic incompetence.”
The Carlile investigation remit did not determine whether the case against Bell was proven. The Archbishop of Canterbury did not apologize on behalf of the church and said that a cloud remains over Bell.