George Bell: The battle for a bishop's reputation

By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
George Bell in 1943Image source, Getty Images

George Bell was one of the most influential Anglican bishops of the last century. But, almost 60 years after his death, he was accused of having been a child abuser. Now campaigners are battling to defend his reputation.

Until last autumn George Bell was a widely respected figure within the Church of England. The former Bishop of Chichester - the diocese covering East and West Sussex - was best remembered for his work to help refugees fleeing Hitler's Germany. He had an Anglican Holy Day - 3 October - named after him.

But on 22 October last year the Church revealed it had made a payment to someone who had made a complaint against Bell. The current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, had made a formal apology for allegations, dating from the late 1940s and early 1950s, of "sexual offences against an individual who was at the time a young child".

The Church said it had carried out a "thorough" investigation, including the use of "expert independent reports". "None of those reports," it added, "found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim."

The statement shocked the Anglican world. One newspaper headline went further than the Church, saying: "Revered Bishop George Bell was a paedophile." Another's read: "Church of England bishop George Bell abused young child."

Image source, PA
Image caption,
George Bell with wife Henrietta at London airport, about to leave for Frankfurt in 1954

Other abuse scandals have affected the diocese.

Within a week of the Church's statement on Bell, Vickery House, the former vicar of Berwick, East Sussex, was convicted of five counts of indecent assault on males - one as young as 14 - over a period of 16 years.

Two weeks before the statement was released, 83-year-old Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewes, in East Sussex, was sentenced to 32 months in jail for misconduct in public office and 15 months for indecent assaults, to run concurrently. He admitted offences against 18 teenagers and young men in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

In 2013, Keith Wilkie Denford was jailed for 18 months for indecently assaulting two teenage boys between 1987 and 1990, while vicar at St John the Evangelist Church in Burgess Hill, West Sussex.

There's been a wide drive to uncover historical child abuse. But, while many crimes have been solved, some commentators argue that a "witch-hunt" atmosphere has developed and some prominent people are having their reputations unfairly besmirched.

Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges has suggested there is a "moral panic" over supposed "establishment paedophiles". Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens has demanded that the authorities and the media respect the "long-established rule that allegations are not treated as proven facts".

Image source, iStock

The woman who made the complaint against Bell first reported the alleged abuse in 1995, but was not satisfied by the Diocese of Chichester's response. She reported it again, directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in 2013, saying she had been inspired by the victims of Jimmy Savile coming forward. This set in train the investigation which led to the payment of about £15,000 and the apology.

In February this year, the woman - now in her early 70s - gave an interview to the Brighton Evening Argus, recounting harrowing memories of abuse by Bell from the ages of five to nine. She said that, while she stayed with a relative who worked at Chichester Cathedral, Bell had taken her to a private room and assaulted her. "He said it was our little secret, because God loved me," she told the paper, adding that she had suffered "nerve problems" and depression in the decades since.

Since the Church's statement, a house named after Bell at Chichester's Bishop Luffa School has been renamed, while Bishop Bell School in Eastbourne is to become St Catherine's later this year. George Bell House, a residential and meeting centre in Chichester, has changed its name, at least until a permanent decision on its future is reached, while the future of the memorial to Bell inside the cathedral has come under discussion.

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
George Bell House, in Chichester, has changed its name

But others have defended Bell. The George Bell Group, whose members include Labour MP Frank Field and former judge Alan Pardoe, has heavily criticised the Church for the way it carried out its investigation.

It describes it as "quite inadequate as a basis for assessing the probability of Bishop Bell's guilt", arguing that "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".

One of the group's leading members, the historian Andrew Chandler, completed a biography of Bell shortly before the Church made its apology. He was not consulted for the investigation and there was no cross-referencing of the allegations with Bell's diaries, he says.

"People who felt they knew something about George Bell were incredulous when the statement came out," Chandler says.

Lawyers for the alleged abuse victim, who left Chichester as a nine-year-old, have told the BBC she no longer wants to talk to the media or for anyone else to make statements on her behalf.

George Bell 1883-1958

  • Born in 1883 and educated at Westminster School and Oxford University, he became Bishop of Chichester in 1929, serving in that role until his death in 1958.
  • He was an early critic of Nazism and organised the evacuation of many Jews from Germany
  • Bell was also critical of the "pattern" bombing of some German cities, including Hamburg and Dresden, during World War Two
  • He was an advocate of ecumenism - unity among Christian churches - and commissioned TS Eliot to write the play Murder in the Cathedral, on the death of Thomas Becket

Lord Carey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, has said he is "appalled" by the Church's handling of the allegations, promising one of Bell's relatives he will "seek ways of re-opening this".

But the Diocese of Chichester insists it has acted properly. It declined to speak to the BBC for this article, but diocesan secretary Gabrielle Higgins has said the process leading up to the settlement and apology was "long, complex and carried out with all the sensitivity that a case of this nature demands".

It said that, as the case over the deceased Bell's alleged actions was civil rather than criminal, the burden of proof for the claims was not to be "beyond reasonable doubt". But this did not mean Bell had been denied a "presumption of innocence", it added.

The George Bell Group is demanding more information on how the Church reached its decision. "This has been a secretive process," says Chandler. "It's clearly vulnerable to criticisms that it has been little better than a kind of kangaroo court."

The Church insists that legal confidentiality owed to the alleged victim means much of the evidence it has heard cannot be shared. It has said it's important to "consider the courage displayed by any survivor coming forward".

Image source, AP
Image caption,
George Bell (centre) with German Reverends Dr. Martin Niemoeller (left) and Otto Dibelius

The Bishop of Durham, speaking on behalf of the Church, addressed the matter in the House of Lords earlier this year. He said a careful reading of the Church's statement of last October would show that "there has been no declaration that we are convinced that this took place. It is about the balance of probabilities and what might have happened if it had come to light at an earlier date."

By this, he meant the part of the Church statement that Bell, had he been accused while alive, would have been arrested and questioned. The George Bell Group says an arrest after such an allegation is normal procedure and does not imply guilt.

"We have been asked to accept something that is confused and confusing, and troubling, either out of deference or obedience, or out of faith," says Chandler, adding that "to many thoughtful people the whole business lacks a basic sense of fairness and decency".

However, the current Bishop of Chichester has accused the George Bell Group and others of showing "shocking ignorance of the suffering felt at many levels by victims of abuse", saying: "The presence of strident voices in the public arena which have sought to undermine the survivor's claims has added to the suffering of the survivor and her family."

Bell's alleged victim has said she told a relative when the abuse began. "But back then you were told 'Shhh, you don't say that, that's not nice, don't tell fibs'," she told The Argus. "Back in them days everything was swept under the carpet… Back then you did what you were told, so 'you go with the bishop' and you just trotted off, especially once you've mentioned it once and been told not to tell lies."

Chandler emphasises: "The controversy that has attended all of this has never been directed against the complainant, for whom everyone feels a genuine sympathy. It is really about the process that has been brought to bear on the complaint itself."

Following the allegation against Bell, who was married but had no descendants, the Church asked potential victims to contact the NSPCC. No-one has yet done so.

But John Cameron, the NSPCC's head of help lines, says it's important that organisations show complainants are "being listened to" and that allegations are taken seriously.

If George Bell's supporters win their battle, it's likely to have a wider impact on the controversies of investigating historical abuse.

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