Diocese of Chichester defends handling of George Bell abuse claims

 Bishop Bell has not been denied the ‘presumption of innocence’, because proceedings were never brought before a criminal court. 

In October 2015, the Church of England announced that the Bishop of Chichester had issued a formal apology following the settlement of a civil claim regarding sexual abuse against the Right Reverend George Bell.

Bishop Bell had a long and distinguished ministry as bishop of Chichester from 1929 until his death in 1958.

The process leading up to the settlement, the apology and the announcement was long, complex and carried out with all the sensitivity that a case of this nature demands. Given the nature of the allegations and the reputation of Bishop Bell, it is however understandable that questions have been raised since the announcement was made. These have come from members of the church nationally and locally, as well as from the media.

We would like to take this opportunity to try to answer some of these concerns – as best we can. For legal reasons, it has often been impossible to respond to specific questions about the case and we understand this has been frustrating. It is possible however to clarify three broad areas to which the majority of concerns relate.

Presumption of Innocence

In criminal cases, innocence is presumed until guilt is proved and the burden of proof rests entirely on the prosecution. This means that no-one can be subjected to criminal penalties by the state unless their guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt. The concept is probably familiar to most people, but not well understood. In popular culture the assumption is that this principle applies to all ‘legal cases’, but in fact it applies to criminal prosecutions only.

The case of Bishop George Bell was a civil and not a criminal case – regardless of the serious nature of the allegations. Bishop Bell has not been denied the ‘presumption of innocence’, because proceedings were never brought before a criminal court. This may seem like a technical point, but it is important that this fundamental legal principle is understood.

Where allegations are made against a deceased person, as is the case with Bishop Bell, they must – of course – be taken seriously and dealt with accordingly, however uncomfortable this may prove, or however high profile the individual may be. The death of the person does not mean that allegations should not or cannot be investigated at all. It only means that a criminal prosecution cannot be pursued.

The Evidence was not disclosed

Many have asked to see the evidence on which the civil case was settled, and many have expressed concern that we have not been able – or seemed willing – to provide it.

The desire for transparency does not sit easily with the requirement for confidentiality. Many vexed questions from local, national and international correspondents have been raised, which is understandable given the international standing of Bishop Bell as a theologian and church leader.

But here we must also consider the courage displayed by any survivor in coming forward. The law rightly affords them protection to safeguard the confidentiality of their deeply personal information.

Time and again we hear from people reporting abuse about how painful it is for them to disclose their experiences, as reporting involves re-living. We sympathise with those struggling to come to terms with Bishop Bell’s situation. We also understand the desire to see the evidence. However, this cannot outweigh the individual’s right of privacy.

Even if we wanted to reveal the information, we would be unable to do so: the survivor’s privacy is protected in law. It is legally impermissible for the Church to disclose any evidence used in the settlement, or any information that might lead to identification of the complainant. To be absolutely clear: no specific confidentiality agreement has been applied in Bishop Bell’s case; confidentiality laws apply in all cases of this nature.

Betrayal of Memory?

The third tranche of questions raised by this case is an extremely difficult one. It relates to the question of betraying the memory of someone praised as one of the greatest Churchmen of the 20th Century, a man who had devoted so much of his ministry to the cause of peace.

There is no doubt that George Bell achieved many great things during his lifetime, for which he is rightly honoured and which should continue to be remembered. But any suggestion that those who have done good deeds should be afforded an extra degree of protection from serious allegations cannot be upheld. This is fundamentally wrong.

This position led many institutions, including the Church, to respond to allegations of sexual abuse so poorly in the past and we cannot – and will not – allow this to continue in the 21st century. All allegations of abuse must be taken seriously and dealt with sensitively and professionally; we must never demand a higher threshold of suspicion because the accused person is of high standing, or has an ‘impeccable’ reputation, however uncomfortable this may make us feel.

To conclude: this case has been extremely difficult for all concerned. Many complexities – legal and otherwise – have given rise to many questions. A number of the questions which have risen cannot be answered, and this blog offers clarification as to why that is so, and also provides some guidance to those frequently-posed questions to which answers can be given.

Gabrielle Higgins, Chichester Diocesan Secretary

22nd Jan 2016

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