I first encountered the name of Bishop George Bell more than 40 years ago when working on Churchill’s official papers. His stand against the area bombing of Dresden and other German cities in 1944 was a valiant example of Christian witness at a personal cost; when Archbishop Temple died, Bell was not considered for the post. When I heard that my friend Andrew Chandler was writing his biography, I was pleased that Bell would once more be brought into the public eye.
But as Andrew was completing the book, Bell’s name came to the fore in a way no one could have predicted. In October 2015 it was announced that the Diocese of Chichester had paid compensation to an alleged victim who had, as a child, been abused by Bell. In a phrase which would come back to haunt him and the Church of England, the Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said: “I am committed to ensuring that the past is handled with honesty and transparency.”
There were no details of how the case had been investigated, or what the evidence was. In a style which would soon become common, an institution would announce it was committed to “transparency”, condemn the named individual, and then anyone connected with that person would disown them. Thus, buildings and other places named after Bell dropped his name.
A group of Bell’s admirers, refusing to accept the only argument offered – which was that if the Church said it was so, it was so – was formed, and as the George Bell Group, campaigned for a review of the proceedings. Despite the disgraceful allegation that this meant we were in some way denigrating the woman who alleged abuse (we were not), we pressed our case. There was no sign that the inquiry had done any historical investigation, and there were surviving witnesses who should, at the very least, have been seen. The Church had, it seemed, proceeded on the basis of guilty until proven innocent, and made no attempt to try the evidence.
Our statement was released to the press in March 2016, and the Church, eventually, in December of that year, asked Lord Carlile to review the evidence. By October of 2017 we knew the report was complete, and we pressed the Church to release it. It is important to note that, by its very constitution, the report was prevented from pronouncing on the issue of guilt or innocence.
On December 15 it was released. Its thorough review of the processes revealed that we had been right: they were inadequate to the point of carelessness. In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, issued a statement which continues to rankle: “The complaint about Bishop Bell does not diminish the importance of his great achievement. We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name.”
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