Church of England and Sussex Police Criticised in Report about Bishop George Bell Abuse Claims

A bit late with this – from the Guardian:

The Church of England has been criticised for a “rush to judgment” in its handling of allegations of sexual abuse against one its most revered figures of the 20th century in a highly damaging independent inquiry.

The report by Lord Carlile, released on Friday (15 December), said that although the church acted in good faith, its processes were deficient and it failed to give proper consideration to the rights of the accused.

The findings, which the church has made public two months after receiving them, concerned claims made against George Bell, the former bishop of Chichester, who died in 1958. A woman now in her 70s alleged that Bell had abused her in the bishop’s palace over a period of four years, starting when she was five years old.

I looked at the allegations here and here. The report can be read on the Church of England’s website – Bell’s niece is of the view that the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, ought to resign over the matter. The woman is known in the media as “Carol”.

Criticism of the police

Carlile’s review has been widely discussed in the media, but it is worth highlighting here that he is critical of Sussex Police as well as of the Church of England. When the Diocese of Chichester first announced the allegations, in late 2015, it included the detail that

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.

As I noted previously, this tends toward the view that arrests are indicative of well-grounded suspicion, or perhaps even of guilt. The journalist Peter Hitchens made a complaint about the statement to Sussex Police’s Professional Standards Department, which was initially dismissed (anyone who has dealt with a PSD will know that this is par for the course) but eventually prompted a semi climb-down from Det Supt Jeremy Graves that “there was no intention to release a police statement about the alleged criminality of Bishop Bell”.

Carlile has a bit more on this:

On the 12 December [2013] Detective Constable CD from Sussex Police emailed Carol and informed her that DI EF would review the file to establish whether, if the suspect was alive, there would be a realistic chance of prosecution, i.e. would he have been charged with an offence?

This was clumsily phrased. DC CD should have referred to ‘a realistic prospect of conviction‘, the CPS evidential test for a prosecution; and to whether there was sufficient suspicion to justify interviewing the suspect under caution or, possibly, arresting him. A charging decision would not have been made without an investigation and interview, and in a case of this kind the advice and involvement of the Crown Prosecution Service would have been routine.


On the 5 March 2015 Detective Inspector EF of Sussex Police emailed Colin Perkins to the effect that: …If Bishop Bell were still alive he would have been arrested on suspicion of rape… Had Bishop Bell denied the accusations, a file would have been sent to the Crown Prosecution Service…

Carlile’s commentary on this is that (emphasis added):

Had Bishop Bell still been alive, unless there was evidence that he appeared to represent a danger to the public he would not have satisfied the arrest conditions. I am surprised that the police did not appear to be aware of this. The probability is that, had he been alive, his premises and any computer would have been searched under a warrant, and he would have been interviewed under caution at a police station, not under arrest. This is of some significance because the Core Group may well have taken an exaggerated view of the use of the word ‘arrest’, as being in some way of itself evidence pointing towards guilt – which it is not.

…Unfortunately, DI EF did not emphasise that no enquiries had been carried out beyond interviewing Carol. Nor did he set out accurately the two-stage test to be applied by the CPS in deciding whether to prosecute, namely whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction on the evidence and, if so, whether it is in the public interest to prosecute -using the merits based approach…

…Nor was any specialist criminal lawyer asked to advise on the strength of the evidence. 

…Had the evidence my review has obtained without any particular difficulty… been available to the Church and the CPS, I doubt that the test for a prosecution would have been passed. 

Reading this, one immediately recalls the headline “Police: If Ted Heath was alive today we’d quiz him under caution on child abuse claims”, which appeared in the Mail on Sunday in September (discussed here). Again, routine police procedure was presented in sensational terms, to the detriment of a dead man’s reputation and at the cost of misinforming the public more generally about what inferences they should draw from police investigations and legal decision-making (a matter of some particular significance for living people accused of comparable crimes, as seen for instance during Operation Midland) (1).

One mild criticism I have of the above is that more could have been said about the distinction between the “advice and involvement” of the CPS during an investigation and “a file” going to the CPS following an investigation. The latter may or may not be appropriate, depending on what an investigation uncovers. In this case, of course, there was no police investigation, just the record of a complaint. Sending Carol’s statement to the CPS without further scrutiny, it seems to be, would be in breach of the “Police duty to assess evidence before charging or referral”, as specified by the CPS and explained here.

Criticism of the 1995 church response

It should not be overlooked that while Carlile sees a “rush to judgment” in 2015, he is also critical of the way the woman’s complaint was handled dismissively by Bishop Eric Kemp, who was Bishop of Chichester from 1974 to 2001:

I have concluded that the Church did not serve Carol well in 1995, whatever the truth or otherwise of her allegations. As Bishop Bell’s successor, Bishop Kemp should have met Carol, or at the very least appointed a responsible person to meet her. He should have set in train a genuine process of inquiry and assessment. I find that the Church failed Carol in 1995.

The report reveals that a member of staff in 1995 advised Kemp that Carol lived at a location “where the council houses problem people” – a statement described by Carlile as “an inappropriate comment”.

Carlile also suggests that Kemp should have done more because 1995 was three years after Bishop Peter Ball had accepted a police caution for “gross indecency”. This was shortly after Ball had become Bishop of Gloucester, although before that he had been Suffragan Bishop of Lewes within the Diocese of Chichester. We now know that the police caution merely scratched the surface of – indeed, it served to minimise and gloss over – a long history of predatory sexual behaviour (blogged here and here). It is significant, although Carlile does not mention it,  that Kemp’s memoir falsely stated that Ball had been the victim of “mischief-makers”. This indicates that Kemp was aware of a plurality of allegations, and that his attitude was at best dismissive and at worst calculatedly dishonest.


The report contains a more explicit account of “Carol’s” allegations, specifying digital penetration, ejaculation, and the particularly grotesque and blasphemous detail that “he would always chant suffer little children to come unto me till I was anointed.”

Carlile states that he is not in a position to judge whether her account is true or not. However, he has met her, and he is confident that she believes that she is telling the truth. Further, he notes that “she has been examined by two experienced forensic psychiatrists, who found no evidence of any material mental illness or psychiatric condition.”

Carlile also notes that there have been no other allegations against Bell despite his access to many children, and he discusses a woman he calls “Pauline”, who as a child was the adopted daughter of Bell’s housekeeper and lived in the Palace. Nothing untoward happened to her, and Carlile suggests that had the team set up by the church to investigate the allegation – the “Core Group” – “been aware of this evidence, they might well have approached their task differently.” Carlile also criticises the Core Group for not pursuing further enquiries in relation to the Kinderstransport, which Bell was involved in prior to World War Two and which resulted in a number of Jewish children staying at the Palace.

The report also considers “Carol’s” knowledge of the Palace’s layout. Peter Hitchens has suggested that Carol has confused a medieval kitchen that is sometimes open to the public with a different private kitchen in the building; Carlile does not refer to this specifically, but suggests that a re-interview of Carol “might have ascertained evidentially material detail” pertaining to the layout, including asking her “which kitchen was she abused in”.

One member of the Core Group also drew attention to an apparent discrepancy: on the one hand, Carol supposedly told no-one, because Bell had had told her that the abuse was a secret; but on the other, she has supposedly told the person she visited at the Palace (which was why she was there) that the bishop had been “interfering” with her, and her account had been rejected as “fibs”.


The report included also a long quote from a psychiatric report by Professor Anthony Maden, which was apparently not provided in full to all members of the Core Group. Maden included general observations about memory and credibility in general, including the following:

…there are enormous problems for the expert arising from the fact that the Claimant is now assessed 63 years after the material events. The alleged abuse was not reported until over 40 years after the material events.

…Memory is not reliable over such long periods of time.

…The Royal College of Psychiatrists, in common with similar professional bodies in other countries, recognises that in some cases so-called “false memories” of abuse may arise. The emphasis in the College document on the subject (Brandon et al, 1997) is on such memories arising during therapy but the literature cited above gives no reason to believe the problems associated with recall of distant events are limited to therapeutic situations. Therapy is simply one of the many influences on the individual’s beliefs, needs and values that shape and determine memories.

…In the present case, the Claimant looks back on a life that for the first 30 years or so was often unhappy. There is an obvious temptation to seek to (consciously or unconsciously) allocate the blame for that unhappiness to the actions of others in the distant past.

…The Claimant strikes me as a sympathetic and in many ways admirable woman. She does not suffer from a personality disorder. I have no doubt that she is sincere in her beliefs. Nevertheless it remains my view that the possibility of false memories in this case cannot be excluded.

Carlile does not overstate the importance of this – after all, it seems to me that the general observation that a memory may be inaccurate is little more than a truism. Further, plenty of childhood memories are vivid and can be corroborated, which suggests that despite the reality of false memories (discussed here), radical scepticism goes beyond reasonable doubt. However, Carlile suggests that

Given the comments of Professor Maden cited above, had there been full knowledge of them in the Group, my expectation would have been that the majority would have steered back towards a fuller evidential investigation of the claim.


1. In mid-2016, IPSO, the Independent Police Standards Organisation, dealt with a complaint that the Chichester Observer newspaper had been wrong to run a piece headlined “Bishop now known to have abused child”, given that this had not been established in a court of law. IPSO rejected the complaint, noting that the article “accurately reflected the Church of England’s position on the claim”. This suggests that it is acceptable for a newspaper to present a disputed allegation as fact and then to rely on the defence that they are merely “reflecting” one party’s view of the matter.