Cathedral Names Former Bishop of Chichester as Child-Sex Abuser

As has been widely reported, Chichester cathedral has accepted the veracity of an allegation of sex abuse against Bishop George Bell (died 1958) regarding “a young child” in the late 1940s and early 1950s:

In this case, the scrutiny of the allegation has been thorough, objective, and undertaken by people who command the respect of all parties…

…A formal claim for compensation was submitted in April 2014 and was settled in late September of this year. The settlement followed a thorough pre-litigation process during which further investigations into the claim took place including the commissioning of expert independent reports. None of those reports found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim.

A report in the Telegraph adds:

Although Bell could not be questioned having died almost 60 years ago, the Church said it had investigated the victim’s allegations ahead of what would have been a civil case and accepted their account as being true on the balance of probabilities.

George Bell House, the cathedral’s “centre for vocation, education and reconciliation” will now be re-named, and presumably other buildings and institutions named for Bell (including a secondary school in Eastbourne) will follow suit; and although Bell’s name is currently still listed on the Church of England’s list of Commemoration Days, it is likely that this year’s remembrance (which occurred earlier this month) will be the last.

The news has been rightly described as “shocking”; Bell was a revered churchman (“Chichester’s greatest bishop since St Richard”, according to a quote in a study guide that – for the moment at least – can still be found on the cathedral website) and a figure of national historical significance whose contribution to British public life can be acknowledged and appreciated by believers and non-believers alike. Bell’s memorialization was a natural expression of his position within Britain’s collective memory; yet now, it appears he is to be abruptly purged, like clips of Jimmy Savile on reruns of Top of the Pops. Is this a just reassessment of the historical record, or an over-reaction to past failures in handling abuse scandals?

Of course, the allegation, if true, can’t just be shrugged off as a sad example of human weakness in a public figure’s private life, such as Martin Luther King’s philandering. There is a victim whose life has been blighted, and Jesus’s harshest warning in the New Testament is for those who harm children. That must affect how Bell is remembered – both as a matter of justice, and as an assurance that no-one is so important that they can expect to commit sex offences against children and not face consequences in this world, even after death.

However, the process leading to the decision is opaque, and has come under particular criticism from Peter Hitchens, who previously took part in a discussion about Bell for Radio 4’s Great Lives strand. Writing in the Daily Mail:

…there has been nothing resembling a trial. No evidence has been tested. No defence has been offered. No witness has been cross-examined. No jury has given a verdict. Yet this allegation is being treated as if it was a conviction. Once again I see the England I grew up in disappearing. What happened to the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial before a jury of your peers?

I know the C of E has had real problems with child abuse in recent years, and has a lot of apologising to do. No doubt. But was it wise or right to sacrifice the reputation of George Bell, to try to save its own? Who defended the dead man, in this secret process?

I’m not in complete agreement with this – the process by which a living person is found to be guilty of a crime is obviously very different from historical research. In the former, a formal methodology is adopted of “innocent until proven guilty”. That is the best approach for trials, given what’s a stake, but it is not the only way to come to a reasonable assessment of the truth – otherwise, it would be impossible ever to establish that a person who has died has committed a criminal wrongdoing.

It is the case, though, that Bell’s reputation has been ruined without any actual evidence entering the public domain. All we have is a very vague allegation, the assurance of “investigators” that the story is true – and, oddly, an assessment from the police. According to the cathedral statement:

Following a meeting between the survivor and Sussex police in 2013, it was confirmed by the police that the information obtained from their enquiries would have justified, had he still been alive, Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview, on suspicion of serious sexual offences, followed by release on bail, further enquiries and the subsequent submission of a police report to the CPS.

I can imagine how the allegation might have created some loose ends of interest to the police, but it seems to me extraordinary that the police are prepared to make such a definite statement about a man who has been dead for 57 years. The investigators may have done a thorough job, but phrases about there being not “any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim” and about “balance of probabilities” do not quite settle the matter. Perhaps, given the complainant’s right to anonymity, this cannot be avoided; but this is a less than satisfactory basis for far-reaching historical revisionism.

The statement also has details about how the complaint was handled:

The survivor first reported the abuse to the then Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, in August 1995. Bishop Kemp responded to the correspondence offering pastoral support but did not refer the matter to the police or, so far as is known, investigate the matter further. It was not until contact with Lambeth Palace in 2013 that the survivor was put in touch with the safeguarding team at the Diocese of Chichester who referred the matter to the police and offered personal support and counselling to the survivor.

In his letter to the survivor Bishop [Martin] Warner [the current Bishop of Chichester] acknowledges that the response from the Diocese of Chichester in 1995, when the survivor first came forward, “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.”

Kemp, who died in 2009, has come under posthumous criticism for his mishandling of sex-abuse allegations against his suffragan Bishop of Lewes, Peter Ball: Ball had moved on to Gloucester at the time of his police caution in early 1993, but further allegations relating to Ball’s time at Lewes were brought to Kemp’s attention a couple of years later (including two cases involving children) and it seems that Kemp may have had earlier suspicions (according to one report, “Kemp reportedly told Ball to ‘stop inviting young men’ to his house”, and it was known in 1993 that there were other accusers). Yet Kemp did not act on his information, and in his 2006 autobiography he blamed Ball’s resignation on “mischief-makers”.

There have also been other sex-abuse convictions of clerics working in Diocese of Chichester during the 1970s and 1980s (including, just a few days ago, the case of Vickery House, who was a close associate of Ball), and Kemp’s legacy is itself now seriously tarnished. [1]

UPDATE (3 February 2016): Finally, some details: the regional Argus newspaper has published a long interview with the alleged victim. Discussed my me here.


[1] The journalist Andrew Brown recently Tweeted that ‘A very senior Anglican layman described the diocese under Kemp as a “cesspit” to me once’.

6 Responses

  1. A good and well-written article which raises fundamental legal and constitutional issues which need to be driven home much more. So: we have the re-introduction of the Inquisition’s methods, albeit confined at the moment to the dead. This breaches the Common Law and the fundamental rights of all accused to a fair, open and public trial. This puts everyone in the power of an anoymous accuser – and without a jury, and on a mere balance of probabilities too. When this is stage-by-stage introduced for the living we will be in even more serious trouble; yet God will build His Church.

    • Given that one only needs a certain amount of information about a person, even from over 50 years ago now, a mischief maker could surely present a case that was on the “balance of probabilities” acceptable (without knowing much about this particular case).

      Surely it is time for a proper discussion about a Statute of Limitations in sex abuse cases. Given that even active war crimes investigators from WW2 now say it would be difficult to prosecute persons for murder given that memories are failing. It would of course be a brave politician these days to take this on though.

    • >A good and well-written article

      That’s very generous, thanks.

  2. The report in The Guardian suggests the ‘investigation’ may have been carried out principally by the alleged victim:

    “Police had confirmed that, following information obtained by the survivor, Bell would have been arrested and referred to the Crown Prosecution Service had he still been alive, a C of E statement said.”

    I find it quite frightening to see the ease with which history is being re-written & reputations destroyed.

    (P.S. A couple of the links are faulty: the Telegraph & Daily Mail/Hitchens ones.)

  3. The police’s very detailed description of what they *would* have done, up to submitting a file to the CPS, seems curious. It doesn’t pay any heed to what an interview or further enquries might have turned up to undermine the story. Press coverage has implied that the Cof E were at fault for not referring the complaint to the police when it was first made 20 years ago. But before Savile the idea of police investigating a dead man would have been inconceivable. It was undoubtedly this simple fact which restricted the church’s enquiries.

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