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Sunday, 17 December 2017

The case of Bishop Bell

When Bishop George Bell of Chichester (served 1929-1958) was reported to have been a paedophile, it seemed all too familiar - a senior churchman exposed as an abuser.  We'd heard it all before.  Then, when a group of prominent lawyers and others formed to protest his cause, it felt like the establishment closing ranks yet again to protect one of their own.  But the story did not end there.

To all appearances, Bell was a very good man.  He was involved with the German resistance to the Nazis in the 1930s, and he used his influence to help refugees come to Britain.  During World War II, he spoke out against carpet bombing of German cities - a stance which annoyed Churchill so much that it is believed to have cost him appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Of course, the fact that Bell did some morally impressive things does not in itself prove that he was innocent.  Bill Cosby spent years campaigning for worthy causes in the African American community, causes which he seems to have genuinely believed in.  More cynically, Jimmy Savile thought that he could buy respectability through his charity work.

The allegations of abuse are revolting.  The complainant, who has been given the pseudonym Carol, says that she was abused by Bell in his bishop's palace for a period of several years when she was a small child.  There is no conceivable point in repeating the details, but it is worth noting that, if they are true, Bell did not stop at molesting a child; he blasphemously used the trappings of his religion as a cover and accompaniment for doing so.

The church reached a legal settlement with Carol, and Lord Carlile QC has just published an independent review of the case in which he criticises the way that the church handled it (for once, the church was too eager to come to terms with the complainant rather than the reverse).  But Carlile made no attempt to pronounce on the truth or otherwise of the allegations.  What, then, are we to think of them?

The truth is that no-one knows for certain what really happened.  A psychiatrist concluded that Carol was not suffering from any mental disorder, although he left open the possibility of false memory.  It seems to be accepted that she visited the bishop's palace as a child; but the limited evidence that survives seems to tell against the idea that she did so often or spent time personally with the bishop.  Bell's defenders have pointed to a couple of anomalies in Carol's narrative of events; but it is difficult to know whether they are a symptom of wider problems.  No other alleged victims of Bell have been identified, which is unusual in paedophile cases, but not unheard of.

Our society has learnt, slowly and painfully, to listen sympathetically to the accounts of people who come forward as survivors of sexual abuse.  This approach seems to be eminently justified by the evidence.  A Ministry of Justice study from 2012 found that only 3% or 12% of rape allegations are false, depending on the criteria used.  We have also learnt not to assume that respectable figures are incapable of doing terrible things.  Carol was entitled to be given a fair and compassionate hearing. This raises a difficult question of principle.  Why not give her the benefit of the doubt, just to be on the safe side?  Bell is long dead, and the only interest of his that is at stake is his reputation.  Why, we might ask, does his reputation matter?  From a religious perspective, he is in another state of existence now.  The piece of spiritual energy that used to be George Bell is hardly likely to be upset at what is being printed in the Times and the Guardian.  From a secular perspective, he simply isn't around any more.  He didn't leave any direct descendants.  There are no children or grandchildren (although he does have an elderly niece, who was understandably troubled by the coverage).

Bell's defenders, like Peter Hitchens, would reply that a person is entitled to be considered innocent until proven guilty.  But the presumption of innocence is a legal doctrine which belongs in the world of the criminal justice system.  It is extremely important within that specific context, as it prevents innocent people (innocent living people) from being thrown in jail.  But it does not necessarily have any application in other areas of life.  It is not difficult to think of situations in which we manifestly don't give other people the benefit of the doubt, and are not obliged to do so.  When Hitchens invests his pension with a person who has been accused of fraud but hasn't actually been convicted, then he can make this argument.

And yet, and yet... it still seems wrong to trash someone's reputation if they are no longer around to defend themselves.  There is a basic unfairness about it.  We are left with the idea that there is some inherent value in protecting a dead person's reputation, for the sake of truth alone.  Yet this idea has never been recognised in the law.  It is well known that you can't libel the dead.  And what of history writing?  How long should a historian agonise before suggesting that a historical figure is guilty of a great crime?  Should David Starkey have experienced a crisis of conscience when he endorsed the theory that Richard III killed the princes in the tower?

What seems clear is that the Church of England can't go on venerating Bell.  His name has come to be associated with numerous institutions, and he has been given the Anglican equivalent of sainthood in being allocated his own commemoration day in the church's calendar.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has issued a statement in which he clumsily tries to triangulate between Bell's revered reputation and the "great wickedness" of which he is "accused".  Welby whiffles about the "cloud... left over his name" and muses platitudinously that no-one is "entirely good or bad".  Well, no, but most of us aren't kiddy fiddlers; or rescuers of Jewish refugees from Hitler, for that matter.  The statement is worthy of a gas company's PR officer rather than a national spiritual leader.  Bell may well be entirely innocent, but the truth is that the "cloud" is too real to allow him to continue being held up as a person to be celebrated and emulated.  He will have to be allowed to lapse into the obscurity of history.  Wherever he is now, that much is unlikely to bother him.