Chichester under fire over George Bell claims

The Bishop of Chichester is under fire over his claim, made after the Carlile report into the Church of England's handling of an allegation of sexual abuse against Bishop George Bell, that the Church did not proclaim the late Bishop Bell's guilt.

The Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens, who has vigorously campaigned on behalf of the late bishop since the Church made public the claims against Bell in 2015, penned a hard-hitting letter to Martin Warner this week.

Jimmy JamesBishop George Bell

In his letter, Hitchens focused on the impression that was left in the press after the Church issued a formal public apology and announced that it had paid £16,800 to the woman in question, known as 'Carol'.

Hitchens wrote: 'You said on Friday [the day the Carlile report was published], and yet again in your Radio 4 interview on Sunday that you had never proclaimed George Bell's guilt. On Radio 4, you said 'What we did not do and have not ever done is to make a clear statement which says "We have found George Bell guilty". We have never done that'.

'I must ask, in that case, why you did not write to The Times, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC, the Argus of Brighton or the Chichester Observer, correcting their reports of your statement, reports which proclaimed that George Bell was guilty? Is it possible that you did so and they ignored your letters? Or did you choose to leave the impression of guilt which your statement had created, which you now insist you had not intended to create? Had you written to complain, it would have been very helpful to my own unending efforts to get these media to change their tune.' 

The Church of England was criticised in the Carlile report for a 'rush to judgment' in its handling of the allegations against Bishop Bell, who died in 1958.

The report by Lord Carlile said that although the Church acted in good faith, its processes were deficient and it failed to give proper consideration to the rights of the accused.

Hitchens dramatically clashed with Bishop Warner and Peter Hancock, the Church of England's lead safeguarding bishop, at the press conference for the release of the report on Friday, accusing the Church of behaving in a 'Stalinoid' fasion towards the memory of the late Bishop Bell.

The Bishop of Chichester Dr Martin Warner

The columnist also raised the removal of Bishop Bell's name from buildings, institutions and guide books in Chichester including from the former George Bell House. He said that 'many mentions of George Bell have been excised from the Cathedral guide book, his name has been removed from the House which used to bear it at Bishop Luffa school where I should think you might have some influence, and also from a hall of residence at the University of Chichester.

'I pointed out to you last Friday that even the Soviet Union had eventually rehabilitated those whom it had unjustly condemned in unfair show trials (whose memories, names and pictures were likewise removed from buildings, streets, photographs, encyclopaedias and so forth).'

Hitchens concluded: 'The Church of England is surely judged by (and should regulate itself by) a higher standard than an atheist secret police state.'

A spokesperson for the Bishop of Chichester said: 'We have received a copy of the letter and as it is a long, detailed document Bishop Martin will be responding in the New Year. There is no actual time to do it properly between now and Christmas as this is obviously a hugely busy week.'

Bishop Warner said on Friday: 'Lord Carlile's Independent Review is a demonstration of the Church of England's commitment to equality of justice and transparency in our safeguarding practice. The diocese of Chichester requested this "lessons learned" Review.

'We welcome Lord Carlile's assessment of our processes, and apologise for failures in the work of the Core Group of national and diocesan officers and its inadequate attention to the rights of those who are dead. We also accept the Report's recognition that we acted in good faith, and improvements to Core Group protocols are already in place. Further work on them is in hand.

'The Report demands further consideration of the complexities of this case, such as what boundaries can be set to the principle of transparency. Lord Carlile rightly draws our attention to public perception. The emotive principle of innocent until proven guilty is a standard by which our actions are judged and we have to ensure as best we can that justice is seen to be done. Irrespective of whether she is technically a complainant, survivor, or victim, 'Carol' emerges from this report as a person of dignity and integrity. It is essential that her right to privacy continues to be fully respected.

'The good deeds that Bishop George Bell did were recognised internationally. They will stand the test of time. In every other respect, we have all been diminished by the case that Lord Carlile has reviewed.'

Bell's niece Barbara Whitley, 93, has said she wants the reputation of her uncle restored and has asked for a face-to-face apology from the Church of England.

'I'm determined to clear his name before I die,' she told the BBC.  

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