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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Anglican Church Case Studies: Chichester/Peter Ball Investigation Report

B.10: George Bell


432. In 1929, George Bell was appointed as the Bishop of Chichester. He held this post for nearly 30 years, retiring shortly before he died in 1958. During his career, Bishop George Bell enjoyed an exceptional reputation. He was celebrated for his ecumenical work, for his patronage of the arts whilst Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, and for his solidarity with the unemployed during the Great Depression.

433. Bishop Bell is also remembered for his work during the Second World War. He opposed National Socialism as false teaching and helped Jewish individuals to escape Germany. In the House of Lords, he repeatedly condemned the bombing of civilian areas of Germany. But for his known opposition to this, it is possible that he would have become Archbishop of Canterbury. After the war, he publicly opposed the atomic arms race and the expulsion of German minorities from Eastern Europe and Russia. Bishop Bell was seen as a titanic figure within the Church of England, much revered for his courage and compassion.

Allegations of abuse

434. In 1995, some 37 years after Bishop Bell’s death, a letter was sent to his successor as Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp. The author of the letter is known by the pseudonym ‘Carol’.[1] Carol alleged that when she was aged between five and eight years, she was sexually abused by Bishop Bell. The abuse occurred every few months during visits to the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester. It included digital penetration, forced masturbation and attempted rape.[2] The Inquiry cannot determine the truth or otherwise of these allegations. We will focus solely on the Church’s response to posthumous allegations of child sexual abuse.

The Church’s response to ‘Carol’

435. In August 1995, Bishop Kemp responded to Carol’s letter. He expressed sorrow for her “distressing memories”, offered to suggest the names of counsellors[3] and advised her to contact her parish priest. He wrote to her local priest in the same month, informing him of the allegations and stating that “nothing has been heard of her since, so we may find the whole matter dropped entirely”.[4] His remark implied that inaction was the preferred response and, indeed, no further steps were taken by the Diocese or the bishop to explore the allegations.

436. At this time, sexual misconduct was a live and significant issue in the Diocese of Chichester. Bishop Peter Ball had recently been cautioned after admitting gross indecency with a young man. As evidenced by the handwritten notes of Bishop Kemp’s chaplain, however, the Diocese’s primary concern was to prevent Carol from speaking to the media by way of an injunction.[5] Even in 1995, this was not the correct approach to take.

437. Bishop Kemp should have actively explored Carol’s complaint. He should have met with her personally and alerted the National Church Institutions. The Church’s approach at that time to non‑current abuse was unclear, but it did possess written guidance on child protection. At the very least, therefore, Bishop Kemp should have sought advice from the national Church as to how to manage this process. A serious allegation against a high‑profile figure warranted attention and consideration at the highest level of the Church.

Further contact with the Diocese

438. In April 2013, Carol reiterated her complaint in an email to Lambeth Palace. This email was forwarded to Mr Colin Perkins, who arranged for Carol to meet with the Independent Domestic and Sexual Violence Adviser. Her complaint was also referred to Sussex Police. Carol subsequently received counselling from a local specialist provider, which was funded by the Diocese of Chichester.[6] Mr Perkins explained the aim was to “provide a supportive and listening voice for the complainant, and to take the complaint seriously … our response was safeguarding driven”.[7] Mr Perkins “made key staff in Chichester, Church House and Lambeth Palace aware of the complaint”.[8] He also reviewed a selection of Bishop Bell’s file notes, during which time he discovered Carol’s original letter to the Diocese.

439. In 2014, Carol issued a civil claim for damages against the Diocese of Chichester. As George Bell had been a diocesan bishop, insurance cover would not have been provided for this claim. This meant that the Church had to decide internally how to address the matter. A core group was convened to respond to the claim, attended by key diocesan and national personnel. Having received legal advice that the claim was likely to succeed, a financial settlement was reached and Carol received monetary compensation from the Church for her abuse.[9]

440. The current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, sent a letter of apology to Carol from the Diocese of Chichester. He stated that the Church’s response in 1995 “fell a long way short, not just of what is expected now, but of what we now appreciate you should have had a right to expect then”.[10] A public statement from the Church of England followed in October 2015, confirming “the Bishop of Chichester has issued a formal apology following the settlement of a legal civil claim regarding sexual abuse against the Right Reverend George Bell”.[11]

441. On 22 June 2016, a meeting took place at Lambeth Palace.[12] This involved the Secretary General of the General Synod, the National Safeguarding Team and Bishop Warner. The meeting addressed growing public criticism of the Church’s actions in the George Bell case. Shortly after the meeting, Bishop Warner commissioned an independent review. It was intended to examine the handling of Carol’s complaint and all decision‑making processes.

442. The review was conducted by Lord Carlile of Berriew. He is a senior criminal barrister, peer and former independent reviewer of terrorist legislation. Its terms of reference included ensuring that survivors were responded to appropriately in future and that “good practice is identified and disseminated”, as well as making recommendations to assist the Church in its safeguarding duties.[13] Bishop Warner met personally with Carol to explain the purpose and intended process of the review.[14]

The Carlile review

443. The Carlile review was published in December 2017.[15] It contained criticisms of the Church’s actions, both at a diocesan and national level, in its response to posthumous allegations.

Decision to issue a public apology

444. Lord Carlile opined that any settlement of Carol’s claim should have included a “confidentiality clause … providing for repayment of damages and costs in the event of breach”.[16] This would purportedly serve to protect the unblemished reputation of Bishop Bell. In our view, the imposition of a confidentiality provision may not always be appropriate in the context of a child sexual abuse claim. Mr Bonehill, UK claims director for Ecclesiastical Insurance Office plc, noted “It is difficult to imagine a situation where it would be considered ethically proper for an organisation to seek to claw back a damages and costs payment from an individual who, potentially, has been a victim of abuse”.[17] To this end, the Ecclesiastical Insurance Office sets out in its Guiding Principles that a confidentiality clause will not be included in a settlement unless specifically requested by the claimant.[18]

445. The most important factor for the Church was the maintenance of public trust and confidence. This would include acting with transparency and openness. The imposition of a confidentiality undertaking could potentially impede the process of reconciliation and healing.[19] As Archbishop Justin Welby concluded, “justice is better served by transparency” within this context.[20]

Inadequate regard for good character

446. In his consideration of Bishop Bell’s good character, Lord Carlile said “the high esteem in which he was held, taken together with the lack of any other allegations, should have been given considerable weight”.[21] Although the character of any accused person may be relevant, it is not of any more relevance for an individual who is also held in “high esteem”. This is supported by research in respect of teaching staff which has found that “those who sexually abuse students are often among the most competent and popular staff”.[22]

447. People are often reluctant to think ill of individuals who are perceived to be good, or who have behaved in a morally courageous manner. They refuse to believe that such individuals could simultaneously be child sexual abusers, even when faced with damning evidence of their guilt. Lord Carlile’s recommendation runs the risk of exacerbating this tendency.

448. When allegations are made against a person, the Church has to act with utmost care. On the one hand, it must guard against the assumed view that someone is not capable of guilt. As Carol said, “I know George Bell was a man of peace, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do those things to me”.[23] On the other, it must guard against thinking that simply because someone is prominent or esteemed, their denials lack weight or substance.

Absence of corroborating evidence

449. Lord Carlile criticised the core group for relying on the evidence of a “single complainant”.[24] However, the majority of victims of child sexual abuse will be unable to produce any corroborating evidence. As Mr Perkins stated:

“The typical account is a sole complainant who can offer nothing but their own account. If we are to disbelieve that person, then we are to disbelieve the typical complainant.”[25]

450. Researchers in the ‘John Jay’ report, which was conducted in response to revelations of clerical abuse in the American Catholic Church, found that 55 percent of allegations of child sexual abuse against 4,392 clergy between 1950 and 2002 were made by a sole complainant.[26]

Flaws in the core group process

451. Lord Carlile considered the core group was “set up in an unmethodical and unplanned way” with a “confused and unstructured process” and members who “had no coherent notion of their roles or what was expected of them”.[27] Bishop Warner accepted the validity of these criticisms, although he added “We were in a situation here of breaking new ground … the formation of a core group was something which we were unfamiliar with”.[28]

452. In 2014, core groups were not well established in the Church of England’s safeguarding practices. The House of Bishops published practice guidance in 2017 called Responding to, Assessing and Managing Safeguarding Concerns or Allegations against Church Officers.[29] This clearly defined the purpose of a core group as being “to oversee and manage the response to a safeguarding concern or allegation”.

453. It is not the function of a core group to assess the merits of a civil claim. This is usually managed by the Ecclesiastical Insurance Office, but claims against bishops are not covered by an insurance policy. Therefore in this case, responding to the civil claim fell to the core group by default. Clearly, the conflation of a safeguarding process with a legally‑informed response to a civil claim does not assist either process.[30]

454. It seems to be acknowledged by all that the process was significantly flawed, particularly in its failure to establish at the outset who should be responsible for managing the civil claim. In its response to the Carlile review, the Diocese suggested this should be a separate “litigation group” which would consider whether the claim was proven on the balance of probabilities.[31] We agree that this would be a sensible course of action.

455. In his report, Lord Carlile also observed that the core group did not include a representative for Bishop Bell. We agree that the group should always have the benefit of an advocate for the accused. As Canon Dr Rupert Bursell remarked in his evidence about the difficulty of managing posthumous allegations, “there is a duty of fairness in relation to the person who is deceased and is accused … one almost needs a devil’s advocate to act on behalf of the deceased person”.[32] This view was endorsed by Bishop Warner.[33]

The Church’s response to posthumous allegations

456. Since his appointment as Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser, Mr Perkins estimated that 15 individuals have made complaints of abuse against seven deceased clergy.[34] There is no published or unpublished guidance for dioceses about the management of posthumous allegations, nor is there any guidance on how to set about exploring the credibility of a complaint.

457. Senior clergy are usually told that it is for statutory agencies to investigate an allegation of abuse. It should not be treated as an internal matter. Bishop John Hind said “the Church is not supposed to investigate. These are matters for the public authorities to do”.[35] However, this means that on occasions there will be a gap. This is particularly the case in situations involving deceased persons.

458. On occasion, the police will investigate complaints of child sexual abuse where the accused is deceased. However, this is typically confined to high-profile cases such as that of Bishop Bell. The local authority will also usually decline to involve itself, as that person no longer presents a risk to children and young people.[36]

459. The case of Bishop Bell is not an isolated one. Given the time lag between the event and report, this may well continue to be the case. The Church needs to have a coherent and consistent model to respond to such allegations, which are often controversial. They may provoke raised emotions both in those defending the deceased, and those who allege they have been the subject of abuse. Undoubtedly, allegations of abuse in these circumstances must be fully addressed with the appropriate support being provided to victims. However, as Canon Dr Bursell QC remarked, “the Church does not seem to handle such situations well”.[37]

460. In a document produced to the Synod by the National Safeguarding Steering Group in June 2018,[38] the Church itself recognised that there may need to be independent investigation of complaints against senior clergy. This would include posthumous allegations. The Church is to undertake a scoping exercise, during which it will consider the appointment of an independent ombudsman to deal with complaints about safeguarding management. Both of these issues require serious consideration. They may present a practical solution to the concerns raised in the Carlile review.

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