Archbishop of Canterbury says George Bell's accuser is as important as late bishop's reputation

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said the woman who alleged that Bishop George Bell abused her should be 'treated equally importantly' as the reputation of the late bishop, and that she is 'not an inconvenience to be overlooked'. 

In an interview with the Church Times ahead of a gathering of General Synod, which is like a church parliament, Archbishop Welby defended the decision, made by the Church of England with Welby's involvement, to publicise the £16,800 payment it made to the woman, known as 'Carol'.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has defended the Church of England's handling of allegations against the late Bishop George Bell.Reuters

That decision and the 'rush' that led up to it was heavily criticised in a review published in December by Lord Carlile into the handling of the allegations made against Bishop Bell, regarded as a 20th Century giant of Anglicanism who died in 1958.

Since then, Archbishop Welby has come under growing criticism from historians and academics for insisting that a 'significant cloud' remains over Bell's name.

Speaking to the Church Times, Welby acknowledged that the Carlile report 'points out some of the quite severe weaknesses in the initial investigation of George Bell' and he said that he 'accepted its recommendations — all except half of one recommendation' [the naming of those accused of abuse].

But he added: 'Let's just have a hypothetical situation in which Chichester diocese had not declared its payment [to Carol] two years ago. With the Independent Inquiry [into Child Sexual Abuse]...that confidentiality undertaking would certainly have become public. Now, the first question, when I give evidence, would then be asked: 'What else are you hiding? What do you really know about George Bell that you are not telling us, because you're so anxious to keep it secret?' It's a lose-lose...

Welby continued: 'We have to treat both Bishop Bell, his reputation — we have to hold that as something really precious and valuable. But the person who has brought the complaint is not an inconvenience to be overlooked: they are a human being of immense value and dignity, to be treated equally importantly. And it is very difficult to square that circle.'

Last week, the Church of England's national safeguarding team announced that it had received 'fresh information concerning Bishop George Bell' and said that Sussex police had been informed, without providing any details of the 'new' information about the late Bishop of Chichester. It was subsequently reported that a new complainant had come forward.

The following day, the Bell Society convened a conference at Church House in Westminster, with the keynote speaker  as Dr Jules Gomes, the controversial pastor of an independent Anglican church on the Isle of Man.

Bishop George BellCourtesy of Jimmy James

This led the Bishop of Gloucester, Rachel Treweek, to attack the meeting as 'outrageous' when speaking to Christian Today.

The General Synod will discuss safeguarding policy at its meeting in Church House on Saturday morning.

Reflecting on the past five years in office, Archbishop Welby said that safeguarding was the hardest thing that he had to deal with. 'It's the hardest because you're dealing with the Church's sin. You're dealing with profound human weakness. You're dealing with the consequences in damaged people, in people who've been terribly, terribly hurt. And it's heart-breaking. . .

'I think we've sought to address it, both in mechanistic ways but also spiritually, in prayer, in attitude and culture. We've sought to address it in every way we can.'

Archbishop Welby has taken a leading role in defending the Church of England's approach to Bishop Bell, having been involved in his name becoming public in relation to allegations. The Carlile report reveals an email from the Bishop of Durham on April 29, 2014 to the so-called 'Core Group' in the Church of England, which reads: 'Dear All, At the meeting of Archbishops & Diocesans Archbishop Justin decided that he should inform those gathered of the possibility of the name of the person concerned becoming public in due course.'

The full interview with Archbishop Welby will appear in the next issue of the Church Times.