New group seeks to clear name of bishop accused of paedophilia

Lambeth Palace Libray

A new group of senior church people, lawyers, academics and politicians has been launched to defend the late Bishop George Bell, who has been accused of being a paedophile.

The George Bell Group has been set up after the Church of England disclosed it had apologised and paid damages following a civil sex abuse claim.

The allegations date from the late 1940s and early 1950s and concern sexual offences against an individual who was at the time a young child.

Bishop Bell, born in 1883 and who died in 1958, became Bishop of Chichester in 1929. He was revered as a leading light on the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church and at one time was even in the running to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He was one of the first to speak out against the Nazi threat before the Second World War. 

Since the Church of England settled the claim last October, various institutions and other bodies that were named after him have been rechristened. 

The group has criticised the inquiries by the Church into the allegations as "inadequate" and says the claims lack corroboration.

In its statement, the group says: "We note that the public has been consistently assured that the process by which the Church of England reached a view on Bishop Bell was 'thorough' and 'objective', and that it commissioned 'experts' whose 'independent reports' found 'no reason to doubt the veracity of the claim[s]' of sexual abuse made by the complainant.

"However, although the nature of this process has never been publicly disclosed, we have discovered enough to establish its severe limitations which render it quite inadequate as a basis for assessing the probability of Bishop Bell's guilt. The scope of the independent experts' inquiries was limited to a degree that made a proper analysis of the complainant's allegations virtually impossible."

The group adds: "What is more, little or no respect seems to have been paid to the unheard interests of Bishop Bell or his surviving family – a serious breach of natural justice. In view of the evidence that we have gathered and examined we have concluded that the allegation made against Bishop Bell cannot be upheld in terms of actual evidence or historical probability."

Signatories include the Labour MP Frank Field, the chairman of the Bar, Desmond Browne QC and Professor Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. 

His niece, Barbara Whitley, is among those who are angered by the allegations and who have condemned the blackening of his name when he is no longer alive and unable to defend himself.

The Church of England said: "The overriding goal was to search out the truth and issues of reputation cannot take priority over that. Any suggestion that the reputation of the Church, or its ministers, should take precedence over the search for the truth is fundamentally misplaced."