Sussex Police Apologise but Stand by Bishop George Bell “Arrest” Statement

Peter Hitchens returns to the troubling story of the posthumous child-sex abuse allegation against the former Anglican Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, who died in 1958:

Almost every time I took the case up with neutral observers, or with media who had reported accusation as fact, they cited the police statement that they would have arrested George Bell as crucial in persuading them that there was a serious case against him.

This is so in terms of propaganda. But it simply isn’t so in law. An arrest is proof of nothing and is worthless as evidence. Alas, far too few people know this.

The police statement appeared as part of a press release by Chichester Cathedral, which I noted in October 2015. It stated:

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.

Hitchens made a complaint about the police’s statement on behalf of Bell’s niece, Barbara Whitley. As one would expect, this was initially dismissed out of hand: police tend to regard complaints purely in terms of whether an officer stands accused of conduct that would warrant disciplinary censure, and if the answer is “no” then there is not much chance that a force will feel the need to justify or even explain operational decisions.

However, in this instance Hitchens managed to get a sympathetic hearing from Sussex’s Police and Crime Commissioner, which has now led to a qualified apology, as reported by the BBC:

In a letter to Mr Hitchens, Det Supt Jeremy Graves, head of the force’s professional standards department, said the force would apologise to Ms Whitley.

“The distress caused to Barbara Whitley is of course regrettable and I know that Katie Perkin [head of corporate communications] plans to personally write a letter of apology to her,” he wrote.

He continued: “With hindsight the matter could have been managed more sensitively but it was complicated by the fact that the release was generated by the diocese with whom we should have been working more closely.”

In other words, the police continue to maintain that it was right to announce that it would have arrested Bell were it not for the fact he is dead, even though this comment served no purpose other than to give the impression that Bell had a case to answer and – more generally alarming – that arrests are indicative of well-grounded suspicion, or perhaps even of guilt. (There’s a similar unhappy trend in which the fact of the police handing over “evidence” to the CPS is also taken to mean “no smoke without fire” – I discussed this here) They concede only that “the matter could have been managed more sensitively”.

Hitchens has published a further segment of Graves’s statement (emphases added by Hitchens):

‘My understanding’, wrote Detective Superintendent J.D. Graves,

‘is that the Diocese of Chichester notified Sussex Police that they planned to release a statement to the media. It was never our intention to be proactive (my emphasis); in other words, there was no intention to release a police statement about the alleged criminality of Bishop Bell (my emphasis). However, we were asked by the Diocese to make a statement as they had decided to make this information public and so we provided them with a statement for inclusion in their press release on the basis that once the Diocese published their statement a natural consequence would be a media request to the police for comment’.

As Hitchens adds: “Something is very wrong here.”

The allegation against Bell concerns one woman, known in the media as “Carol”, who claims to have been abused between the ages of five and nine years old in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Cathedral paid “Carol” a sum of money, and stated in October that

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.

The names of the investigators have not been made public, nor have the details of their findings. The media interpreted this statement as meaning that the Church accepts the allegations as “being true on the balance of probabilities”, which is a subtle but significant slide in meaning: at the end of January the Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler (lead bishop on safeguarding, and discussed further here), reeled back slightly with a comment in the House of Lords (noted by Hitchens) that

In fact, if noble Lords read very carefully the statements that have been put out, they will see that there has been no declaration that we are convinced that this took place.

Specific details of the abuse allegations appeared in the media shortly afterwards.

Hitchens is not the only person to have expressed disquiet about how the “investigation” into Bell was conducted, or scepticism about its findings. In particular, the George Bell Group argues that “Carol’s” recollection of seeing Bell waiting for her on a staircase is inconsistent with the layout of the Bishop’s residence.

Hitchens also writes:

The simple principle, that nobody is guilty of a crime until he has been proven to be before an independent jury, just doesn’t apply to the dead – even as in this case when the accusation is solitary, ancient, uncorroborated and anonymous.

I think this risks going too far the other way. The “simple principle” applies to how the justice system works, but not to the process of historical inquiry. For instance, I see no reason to refrain from describing Eric Gill as a child-sex abuser or Arthur Koestler as a rapist, just because these two men were never brought before a jury. However, in those instances we can assess the evidence and testimony for ourselves – which we cannot do in the case of Bell.

The sad fact is that many allegations of abuse will never be able to be proved or disproved. Innocent men and women, whether alive or dead, will have their reputations sullied by false accusations that cannot be comprehensively debunked; and some genuine victims will never be able to substantiate their true accounts and may themselves be unfairly tarred as false accusers. One should always proceed with caution, and those in authority should avoid creating unrealistic expectations.