Newspaper Interview Reveals Details of Sex Abuse Allegations Against Bishop George Bell

The Argus, a regional newspaper in Sussex, has published a long interview with the woman who claims to have been abused by Bishop George Bell as a child more than 60 years ago. The allegation came to light in October, when the Diocese of Chichester issued a statement in which it confirmed that it had investigated the complaint, found it to be truthful (“on the balance of probabilities”), and paid compensation.

The news was shocking – Bell was a revered churchman and a significant figure in twentieth-century British history. It was disturbing that his place in posterity could be re-written in such a devastating way on the word of unnamed “investigators” without any details entering the public domain.

According to the interview, the alleged victim, given the name “Carol” by the newspaper, was a relative of someone who worked at Bishop’s Palace in Chichester. Because Carol came from a large family, she would sometimes come with her relative to work, and even stay over for up to a week. During this time (starting at age 5, and lasting over a four-year period), Bell would read her stories, either while she sat on his knee or when she was in bed, and according to Carol (and accepted as fact by the Argus) he would use the opportunity to “interfere” with her. She told the paper that “he said it was our little secret, because God loved me”, and that when she did tell the relative she was warned not to tell “fibs”.

The lack of detail in October led to complains that Bell was being unfairly treated; Peter Hitchens complained that “no evidence has been tested,” while Charles Moore decried Bell “being ruined by an anonymous, unpublished claim, upheld by a non-court which won’t explain its decision”. It was suggested that the Diocese of Chichester was over-reacting following the conviction of Bishop Peter Ball for historic sex abuse just weeks before.

Now, at last, we at least have an account, and presumably the investigators have been able to confirm the circumstantial details. Carol refers to comments in support of Bishop Bell in her interview:

She said: “Some of the remarks I’ve read made me very upset.

“Because he did good things, they automatically assume that he couldn’t do anything wrong, which was rather hurtful because a lot of men who have done good things have also done very evil things.

“He might be a man of peace but that doesn’t take away the fact of what he did to me.”

…she became visibly upset and looked deeply hurt as she reflected on the voices speaking in support of George Bell’s legacy.

As I’ve said previously in relation to other accusations, when someone relates an traumatic experience, one should of course be mindful about adding to possible hurt or distress by expressing scepticism. However, this has to be balanced against the need to give the accused a fair hearing. Carol’s account comes across to me as credible testimony (although “our little secret” sounds a bit of a cliché), and some may judge that there is now case to answer, but it remains the word of one person, about whom we know very little, speaking about events from long ago that no-one else witnessed.

Certainly, it would be wrong to dismiss her account on the grounds of Bell’s public record – but that isn’t what Hitchens or Moore have suggested. The fact is that no-one working solely with the material in the public domain can claim to know what really happened between Bell and Carol, despite the dogma that one has a moral duty to “believe the victim” whenever an allegation is aired (an approach that has been disastrous in other contexts).

It seems to me that it is not beneficial for those considering coming forward with allegations, even though those allegations may be true, to be given unrealistic expectations about being spared critical scrutiny, or about the presumption of innocence not applying to those they accuse.

UPDATE: The current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, has issued a statement, including the following:

“…The presence of strident voices in the public arena which have sought to undermine the survivor’s claims has added in this case to the suffering of the survivor and her family. To that extent it is not surprising that she felt it necessary to take the courageous decision to speak out in public and reveal the personal details which the Church could not…

“In some responses to the George Bell case, and to the original statements from the Church nationally and locally in the diocese of Chichester, we have witnessed shocking ignorance of the suffering felt at many different levels by victims of abuse.”

This is rather unfair. Did the Bishop really expect that October’s dramatic and opaque announcement would simply be accepted without any critical reservation? Of course one should always strive to avoid causing unnecessary suffering – but I refer back to what I say above about reasonable expectations when accusations cannot be corroborated.

Second, he appears to attribute doubts about Bell being an abuser to a callous and uncomprehending attitude towards the suffering caused by child abuse. Perhaps he’s referring to something in particular here, but without any further explanation this looks like an unwarranted and unworthy rhetorical move.


4 Responses

  1. Having read the interview with ‘Carol’ I’m even more astonished at the behavior of the church than I was before – it’s disgraceful.
    (Disgraceful & frightening, actually, as if ‘they’ can trash such a man’s reputation on such a basis then they can do the same to anyone.)

  2. More from The Argus:

    Peter Hitchens: ““The real consequence of your interview is not a reinforcement of the case against George Bell, but an opportunity for his defenders to examine the case against him in far greater detail and to request more disclosure by the Church.”

    Also of interest:

    “She said she contacted Lambeth Palace while Lord Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury, but got no response.
    Lord Williams: “I never used or even possessed a personal email at Lambeth Palace, so all communication in or out would have been logged through the office, and Lambeth has today confirmed for me that there is no trace of any email or letter.””

    The earlier Argus article states that:

    “Carol does not have a copy of that correspondence from 20 years ago [1995]…”

    “Carol no longer has a copy of that email correspondence with Lambeth Palace [2010]…”

  3. […] 3 2016 – “Newspaper Interview Reveals Details of Sex Abuse Allegations Against Bishop George Bell&#8221… – Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion – Richard […]

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