Comments: Archbishop's statement on Bishop Bell: media coverage

In a letter in The Times yesterday the ex-choristers of Chichester cathedral make an interesting point when they write
"We have never accepted that "Carol" identified Bishop Bell as her abuser."
Mistaken identity doesn't seem to have figured much in the torrent of words that have been written about the Bishop Bell case. Carol's evidence is, to say the least, vague, confused and contradictory and would inevitably have been thrown out of court in an instant.

Posted by Father David at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 8:49am GMT

Realpolitik, as ever, tells us what's going down.

Succinctly, in the current climate, it's safer to condemn Bell than to exonerate him: condemnation doesn't arouse any populist fury, and gains Welby support from the "listen and believe" zeitgeist; whereas exonerating Bell could well draw their ire.*

At a time when conventional opinion views accusation as proof, and #MeToo's power grows by the day, it takes extraordinary courage and independent thinking to so much as question any complaint. Since Bell's defenders are defined by their support of due process and restraint, he has a lot less to fear by rejecting their pleas, so he will.

* see this 'Vice' article from late last year, titled "The Day the Church Stopped Believing Victims":

Posted by James Byron at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 5:21pm GMT

David Lamming also referred to this letter on an earlier thread. I would be interested to read it, but do not seem to be able to get access. Is there a way of providing a link?

Posted by Edward Prebble at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 6:57pm GMT

I don't know how many others of you have had to give an account of events twenty years before in a high-stakes trial in a UK court of law. It happens that I had to do so a few years back in related civil and criminal matters. I was able to refer to my contemporaneous notes and minutes of meetings I'd attended. I think I had a better raw recollection of events than some others who had been involved. But my initial recollection left people out (including a couple of key members of the team I'd been in), got events in a jumbled sequence, got some of the timescales of events out of proportion and the like. My notes from the time were full of little surprises. As I say, it seemed like I had a relatively good memory of things compared with others, but I am rather more humble now about how good my memory is.

So I think it is not on to write "Carol" off as a fantasist or as an unreliable witness, and I don't think the Carlile report, which is written with some care, does that. What it does do is to examine the strength of the evidence, which at the distance of time involved is bound to have flaws, inaccuracies and inconsistencies, even if the central allegation were true (after all the events I was remembering did, in substance, happen). Here the evidence was clearly, in his view, insufficient to establish either the truth or the likelihood of the alleged events having happened. The length of time which had passed since the alleged events also makes the chance of any corroborative evidence arising vanishingly small. Lord Carlile suggests that in the circumstances it was not right to make the substance of the allegations public.

There is a distinction to be made here between this two other things - first the care of the complainant, who has been badly served by this whole process, and is now having her reputation traduced in public, even if she is anonymous: she may well see what is written and know it is written about her. The second is whether it was right to settle with Carol - and here Lord Carlile does, I believe, suggest that this was an appropriate action. Part of the argument for that is pragmatic, and part is down to the poor way in which the allegation was handled in the first place, which meant that when Carol's account was finally examined there was less chance of establishing credibility or finding corroboration. Lord Carlile, in my view rightly, suggests that a confidential settlement would have been more appropriate. Of course there are hazards with this, and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had the matter been considered carefully in the first place the advantages of such an approach - including potential advantages for the complainant - would at least have been explored.

I am afraid Peter Hitchens is wrong when he thinks that the fact of a criminal conviction is decisive to the supporters of someone who has committed abuse. The extent of denial can be quite shocking and surprising - and even sometimes rational and based on personal experience "I was vulnerable, and nothing happened to me. In fact they helped me turn my life around and get back on track. I still don't believe it" has crossed my pastoral conversation before now, and I also note the phenomenon of people giving evidence of good character before sentencing.

I read the Carlile Report as a careful piece of work, which did not fall into the many traps which had tripped up the Church of England process, and which now seem to be tripping up the subsequent debate. Lord Carlile was right to suggest that the way this had been handled did no favours either to George Bell or to "Carol". I would also observe that the attempt to preserve the reputation of the Church of England has done the church no favours either. A process which has left everyone a loser needs some careful reflection.

Posted by Mark Bennet at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 7:28pm GMT

Edward, Unfortunately the letter is behind The Times paywall. It may be that Simon Sarmiento can find a way of posting it. The Times has also caught up with Justin Welby's statement yesterday in response to the historians' letter published last week in the Daily Telegraph. A report was posted on The Times online at 9.00 am this morning (23 January) and will presumably be in tomorrow's newspaper. So far it has attracted 45 online comments, nearly all critical of Welby and and supportive of Bell.

Posted by David Lamming at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 7:41pm GMT

Here's the letter mentioned in the preceding comment.

As former Chichester Cathedral choristers and Prebendal School pupils in the late 1940s and 1950s, we protested in 2015 at the defamation of Bishop George Bell implicit in the church’s response to the claim by a woman around the same age as us that she had been sexually abused by him when very young (“Justice for Bell”, letters, Jan 19). We are delighted at the conclusions of Lord Carlile ofBerriew’s report.

We choristers had a fair sense of George Bell as a man whose fundamental integrity we saw, and throughout our life have continued to value. Our doubts about the claims reflected the strong impression he made, and also the fact that we, alas, had some real experience of what a paedophile could be: a master was relieved of his post and replaced without police involvement when one of us went with his parents to tell the dean what had been happening. We have never accepted that “Carol” identified Bishop Bell rightly as her abuser.

The church now has a responsibility to restore Bishop Bell to his deserved and special place in its life. He remains a saintly figure for those who knew him in the way we did, or have studied his record. Bishop Bell spoke out bravely and worked tirelessly.

He called the 1943 bombing of civilians in Hamburg an unjustifiable act of war. He was the closest foreign friend and supporter of the 1944 Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He helped to found the World Council of Churches in 1948. He welcomed to his bishop’s palace Jewish refugee families from Nazi persecution.

It is surprising that Archbishop Welby and various bishops seem no longer to recognise why this great, clear-sighted man has been treated as an Anglican saint with prayers for his own day of remembrance in the calendar. Holding their offices, they surely should.

Tom Sutcliffe, Roger Davis, Stewart Kershaw, Grevile Bridge, Roger Manser, Peter Watts, Roger Gooding,
Tony Plumridge, Peter Hamel-Cooke, Francis Sutcliffe

Posted by Simon Sarmiento at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 7:55pm GMT

Apparently, the church botched it. But that doesn't mean the problem is the #metoo movement!!! 1 in 4 women have been raped and most of us have suffered sexual harassment, job discrimination, and underpayment (undervaluing us).

The reality is that the church was brutally heartless towards victims of clergy abuse for a very long time. The overwhelming problem is that there are so many victims of sexual abuse. Clearly, the church needs mechanisms in place to act justly and compassionately. However, denigrating the #metoo movement could push victims back into the closet.

#metoo - and anyone denigrating a movement that finally has us talking about violence and oppression against us is spoiling for a fight.

Posted by Cynthia at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 7:57pm GMT

I wasn't denigrating the #MeToo movement, Cynthia; simply pointing out that, in the current climate, Welby has far more to lose by defending Bell than he does by condemning him.

Posted by James Byron at Tuesday, 23 January 2018 at 10:09pm GMT

With reference to the letter from the Chichester choristers:

As one who is well informed about Bishop Bell's life and work, I have thought the allegations against him utterly implausible from the beginning, and have been delighted with Lord Carlile's report, just as I am disgusted by Justin Welby's continuing behaviour over the case.

I am particularly interested that they mention the presence of a paedophile teacher when you were at Chichester. I have twice heard that there was such a person around at the time to which they refer (though not necessarily the same individual). In one case the comment was hearsay so far as I am concerned. In the other case the information was direct. It strengthens my own conviction that "Carol"'s allegation may well be a case of mistaken identity.

What will it take for Welby and the Chichester diocese to grasp that concern for truth and for a great man's reputation matters more than upholding the institution?

Posted by Barry at Wednesday, 24 January 2018 at 10:21am GMT

"As one who is well informed about Bishop Bell's life and work, I have thought the allegations against him utterly implausible from the beginning"

Unfortunately, the same was said of Peter Ball. Character references haven't proven terribly reliable. That's not to say the evidence for Bell being an abuser is plausible, but "he was such a nice man, he never would have done this" is not convincing as counter-evidence either.

Posted by Interested Observer at Wednesday, 24 January 2018 at 2:09pm GMT

England's Court of Appeal would disagree in Bell's case, Interested Observer: since alleged conduct that departs radically from previous behavior is inherently more unlikely than alleged conduct that's in-line with it, a person with an unblemished record, and against whom no bad character evidence has been admitted, is entitled to a good character direction from the judge.*

With only a single, uncorroborated allegation as the sole evidence against him, if he were alive and on trial, Bell would undoubtedly have been entitled to a good character direction from the judge.

Welby's statement appears to conflate two cases that're different in kind, bolstering the extremely weak case against Bell with Ball's serious and admitted crimes against multiple complainants. We shouldn't repeat the error.


Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 24 January 2018 at 2:56pm GMT

Interested Observer: my comment on Bishop Bell was not based on the assumption that "he was such a nice man, he never would have done this" but on the fact that the evidence of his life and work speaks strongly against his being the person to have offended in the way alleged. His life was lived more in the public eye than almost any other bishop of his time, and the testimonies to his moral and spiritual character and unshakeable integrity are abundant. If we are not to make judgements about a man on such evidence then what is the point of studying anyone's life?

Of course we can be deceived. Peter Ball deceived many, yet whispers about him were circulating more than twenty years ago. Those of us who heard them dismissed them as mere gossip. Nothing was said during Bishop Bell's lifetime, or after his death, to give the smallest suggestion of misconduct on his part until this single unsupported allegation emerged. The Carlile Report has made clear that the claims of "Carol" cannot be treated uncritically, and they bear no comparison with the weight of evidence in Bell's favour.

Posted by Barry at Wednesday, 24 January 2018 at 5:41pm GMT

I can't speak to Bell, but I knew Peter Ball when he was Bishop of Lewes and his behaviour should have aroused suspicion. He had teenage boys and young men,, one or two at a time, living with him in his rather isolated cottage. There were some of us, even in the early 80s, who thought this inadvisable - to say the least.

Posted by Janet Fife at Thursday, 25 January 2018 at 4:00pm GMT

Summarised in two lines, Lord Carlile found that the process was seriously flawed, and the outcome was unjust to both 'Carol' and Bishop Bell. In all that has been written since, no one has convincingly countered those findings.

Posted by Rowland Wateridge at Thursday, 25 January 2018 at 4:48pm GMT
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