George Bell was Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958. I first came across him when working on Churchill, who clearly found the good bishop a great trial. On one level this might seem odd, since Bell was one of the earliest opponents of Nazism, and at a time when public policy in the UK was one of trying to find accommodation with Hitler, Bell’s view was that his system was so evil that that would be impossible. He worked closely with ‘confessing churches’ in Germany which refused to join the official Reichkirche, and he worked tirelessly to help Jewish refugees, especially those who were Christian converts who were often not helped by anyone else. Bell also supported those in Germany who wanted to overthrow Hitler, and the last letter the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote was to Bell. One might, therefore, have imagine that the great anti-appeaser, Churchill, would have admired Bell, and perhaps even have recommended him for the See of Canterbury upon William Temple’s sudden death in 1944; he didn’t and he didn’t. Why?
T.S. Eliot described Bell as a man of ‘dauntless integrity’ – and that was his undoing in Churchill’s eyes. Bell detested Nazism with every fibre of his being, but he did not think barbarism should be fought with barbarism. He was an early, consistent and vocal opponent of area bombing – which brought him public opprobrium and the hostility of Churchill – and lost him the chance of Canterbury.
Reputation is fleeting, and even by the time I was writing in the 1980s, Bell’s name was not one to conjure with. It was good, then, to hear that a biography of him was in the press, not least because its author, Dr Andrew Chandler, Director of the George Bell Institute at Chichester, was a friend and colleague whose work I have long admired. What neither of us could have known was that a few months before publication date the diocese of Chichester would issue a statement saying that it accepted allegations that Bell had committed paedophile activities with a young girl, and it had paid a sum of money to the complainant. Suddenly Bell’s reputation was in ruins.
The odd thing was that the official inquiry had not looked at any of Bell’s voluminous papers, nor had it questioned his domestic chaplain (now 94) who had spent a great deal of time with Bell at the time of the alleged abuse. Now it might be that there would be no evidence coming from any of these sources, but they should have been consulted. Could it be possible that, in the post-Savile atmosphere, the Diocese had simply wanted to clear up the case and move on? Was it really possible that one of Bell’s successors had, effectively thrown him under the proverbial bus? That, according to a report commissioned by a group set up to defend Bell, was precisely what had happened – or at least it looked like it. The Diocese was asking us to believe its processes, but providing no detail about them. If they had not involved any work on his papers or talking with surviving witnesses, it was hard to put any faith in them.
One of the lessons from the Savile story is that we must take seriously allegations of abuse; one of the lessons which comes, as Cranmer points out today, from the way the police have handled some of the allegations, is that when they say they are ‘credible’ that does not mean they are true. It is easy enough, in the post-Savile era, to accept allegations and thus avoid the allegation one is putting more pressure on the complainant by subjecting their story to forensic examination; but that is how the justice system works. Because the Diocese has not seen fit to reveal its enquiry, we either have to take it on trust or question its results; it may be there are those still prepared to take an internal enquiry on this matter on trust – but not many any more.
Charles Moore and Peter Hitchens have written eloquently about the case, and the Bell Group is determined that there should be a proper inquiry. At the moment we have, as Peter Hitches has said, an absurd situation where Archbishop Justin can tell the BBC that ‘George Bell – a man he believes to be a filthy child molester who dishonestly and selfishly abused a little girl – is also ‘the greatest hero that most of us have’. I’ve heard of a broad church, but this is ridiculous. One or the other. Not both.’ Quite.