Church of England defends its handling of Bishop George Bell abuse case

Lambeth Palace Libray

The Church of England today defended its approach to the case of Bishop George Bell, who was accused of being a paedophile 37 years after his death.

Despite demands to publish the evidence against him, the Church cannot do this because of a "moral duty" to safeguard the victim, it says.

Supporters of Bishop Bell, who achieved international recognition for his opposition to the Nazis and his work on behalf of the Jews during the war, have protested repeatedly at the damage caused to his reputation by allegations that have not been proven in court.

The Chichester diocese paid compensation to the complainant, Carol, in September 2015. The Bishop of Chichester Martin Warner also formally apologised to her.

Bell's condemnation as a paedophile was then challenged by a group of lawyers, academics, politicians and senior Church figures. They wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier this year, and also circulated a document in defence of Bell to members of the General Synod meeting in York last weekend.

Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday has been among the most vocal defenders of Bell.

In a letter today to those objecting, Bishop Paul Butler, Church of England lead bishop on safeguarding, says the Church was right to settle the claim.

He writes: "I am aware that as a group you have found our decision to settle a civil claim - and publicly say so - very difficult and have articulated your reasons for this both in various statements and other public forums including your website."

The Church of England recently announced a review of lessons learned from how it handled the case, he says. 

The Church recognises the "immense frustration" the protestors feel about not being able to review the primary evidence relied on in reaching the settlement.

But it disputes the legal opinions obtained by the group that it should disclose the evidence.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 protects those alleging non-statutory offences as well as statutory offences and also protects against "jigsaw identification" where members of the public can piece together clues about a complainant's identity.

Butler says: "As you will understand, extreme caution is required, particularly in view of the information already in the public domain. It worth stressing that although Carol has shared some details publicly, she has not waived confidentiality in those she has not shared."

Butler says he is "mystified" how the group can believe the Church can disclose documents provided by Carol's solicitor. "On a wider point, it is singularly unattractive to suggest that because there might be no legal consequences to breaching Carol's confidence, the Church should simply provide sensitive material to a group of individuals with a keen interest in but no connection with the case."

Carol has already expressed herself hurt by the campaign to "clear his name" as it implies that she has not been believed, Butler says.

"It would be quite wrong for us to breach the complainant's confidentiality.

"She has chosen to speak (anonymously, and without giving away a significant number of details) to a journalist following a number of public statements by members of the Bell group and others which she felt questioned her credibility.

"She has found this very hurtful. The question of transparency (or rather the complaint that we are not being transparent) has to be balanced both with the fact we cannot give details which would enable anyone to identify Carol as it would be unlawful for us to do so and with the moral duties we have to safeguard the deeply personal information which survivors of abuse share in confidence."

He adds: "It is clear from the analysis in your review and in other documents that you and other members of the public are labouring under a number of misconceptions which we cannot correct without risking disclosure of Carol's identity."

The case of George Bell will be among those examined by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, chaired by the New Zealand High Court judge Dame Lowell Goddard.