Welby Apologizes for Bishop Bell Criticism

Bishop George Bell

By Mark Michael

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby issued a personal statement on November 17 apologizing for his 2018 refusal to exonerate prominent mid-20th-century bishop George Bell, who had been accused of sexual abuse of a child. Welby also resurrected plans for a statue of Bell at Canterbury Cathedral.

“What I say today that is new and should have been said sooner is this: I do not consider there to be a ‘significant cloud’ over Bishop George Bell’s name,” Welby stated.

“Previously I refused to retract that statement and I was wrong to do so. I took that view because of the importance we rightly place on listening to those who come forward with allegations of abuse, and the duty of care we owe to them. But we also owe a duty of care to those who are accused. I apologize for the hurt that my refusal to retract that statement has caused to Bishop Bell’s surviving relatives, colleagues and longstanding supporters.”

In 1995, a woman alleged that Bell, who died in 1958, had abused her when she was a girl. In 2013, shortly after becoming archbishop, the woman wrote to Welby, who launched an investigation which resulted in a lengthy apology by the Rt. Rev. Martin Warner, Bell’s successor as Bishop of Chichester, as well as a £16,800 settlement with the complainant.

Bell, an ethicist and ecumenist famous for his close friendship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his controversial condemnation of Allied bombing of German cities in World War II, was viewed by many at the time as one of the most significant Anglican leaders of the twentieth century. His supporters strongly criticized the Church of England’s investigation into the allegations, and pushed for an independent review.

Prominent lawyer Lord Carlile’s 2017 review found that there had been many errors in Bell’s case, and that those responsible had “failed to follow a process that was fair and equitable to both sides.” At a December 2017 press conference announcing his findings, Carlile said that the bishop had been “hung out to dry.”

Warner and the Rt. Rev. Peter Hancock, who was then the Church of England’s lead safeguarding officer, both apologized for the mistakes made by the reviewers, with Warner stating, “The good deeds that Bishop George Bell did were recognized internationally. They will stand the test of time. In every other respect, we have all been diminished by the case that Lord Carlile has reviewed.”

Welby, however, refused to back down, stating that “a significant cloud” remained over Bell’s name. He reiterated the claim in 2018, when police decided not to pursue a second allegation against Bell, which was judged a year later by church officials to also be unfounded.

Welby’s recent statement also praised Bell as “one of the most courageous, distinguished Anglican bishops of the past century, committed to the peace and hope of Jesus Christ in a time of conflict and war.” It also announced that a statue of him would be erected on west front of Canterbury Cathedral, alongside other significant figures in English church history. Bell had served as Dean of Canterbury from 1924-1929.

Work on the statue, which had been commissioned by the Friends of Canterbury Cathedral in 2015, was stalled due to uncertainty about Bell’s legacy, but cathedral officials noted earlier this year that it would be completed. Installation will wait until extensive restoration work on the cathedral’s west end is completed, probably in 3-4 years.


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