LONDON: At a time of a sharpening global focus on cases of sexual abuse dating back decades, an authoritative and highly critical report accused the Church of England on Friday of failing to respect “the rights of both sides” in investigating allegations made long after his death against one of its most revered bishops.
The case, involving Bishop George Bell and accusations that he abused a young girl in the 1940s and 1950s, raised tangled questions about the rights and reputations of people who have died and are thus unable to defend themselves against abuse charges. Bell died in 1958, but the accusations were not made until 1995.
In 2015, the Church of England issued a formal apology and paid compensation of 16,800 pounds — around $22,000 at today’s exchange rates — to a woman in her 70s, identified only by a pseudonym, Carol, who had accused Bell of serial abuse over four years, beginning when she was five. The abuse was said to have happened in the palace Bell inhabited as the bishop of Chichester.
Before the accusations surfaced, Bell had been viewed as an almost saintly figure, known for his condemnation of Allied bombing of civilian targets in the Second World War and for sheltering Jewish children evacuated from Nazi Germany to Britain under the Kindertransport programme. But after the allegations surfaced, the report said, Bell was “treated as having been guilty.”
In 2016, the Church of England asked Lord Carlile, a lawyer and former adviser to the government on terrorism legislation, to review the case. He sent his 74-page report to the church two months ago, but it was not made public until Friday.
“It was not part of my task to consider the truth of the allegations, and I have not done so,” Lord Carlile said in his report. But, while he had concluded the Church of England figures charged with investigating the accusations had “acted throughout in good faith,” their inquiries had been “deficient in a number of respects.”
“It is axiomatic that, in appropriate cases, the church should be ready to acknowledge sexual abuse committed by the clergy,” he said. “However, that does not mean that the reputations of the dead are without value.”
In the case he was asked to review, he said, the available evidence did not suggest there would have been “a realistic prospect of conviction” in court, the standard that prosecutors in England and Wales use in deciding whether to pursue a case.
Rather, he said, “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.”
Church of England figures rejected one part of Lord Carlile’s report, which urged that the names of those accused of abuse should in some circumstances be kept secret unless there are “adverse findings of fact” and “it has also been decided that making the identity public is required in the public interest.”
The Most Rev. Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, who is the leader of the Church of England and the spiritual head of the broader Anglican Communion, disputed the case for confidentiality, saying the church was “committed to transparency and therefore we would take a different approach.”
But, referring to the processes by which Bell’s case was investigated, he said in a statement: “We accept that improvement is necessary, in all cases, including those where the person complained about is dead. We are utterly committed to seeking to ensure just outcomes for all. We apologise for the failures of the process.”
He also seemed to offer a more nuanced view of Bell than the bishop’s critics have been prepared to countenance, calling him “one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century.”
“No human being is entirely good or bad,” Welby said. “Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good. Whatever is thought about the accusations, the whole person and whole life should be kept in mind.”
According to the accusations made against him, Bell took the young Carol to secluded parts of the palace and had her sit on his lap. He performed acts that he told her showed that she had been “chosen by God as a special child but that I must not tell anyone or God would be angry,” she said in an email sent in 1995 to one of Bell’s successors as bishop of Chichester.