The Church of England has produced a lot of good men and women, but very few great ones. It is in its modest, cautious nature that it should be so. Greatness requires a lonely, single-minded strength that does not sit easily with Anglicanism’s gentle compromise.
And I suspect the Church has always been hesitant and embarrassed about the one undeniably great figure it produced in the 20th century. To this day, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958, is an uncomfortable, disturbing person, like a grim obelisk set in a bleak landscape. Many British people still disapprove of his lonely public denunciation of Winston Churchill’s deliberate bombing of German civilians in their homes. Some still defend the bombing and seek to reconcile it with Christian teaching, which is hard. Others simply refuse to believe, against all evidence, that this is what we did. It is often said, though it cannot be proved, that George Bell would have become Archbishop of Canterbury — a post for which he was well qualified — had he kept his mouth shut.
And perhaps this is why he found so few defenders when, 57 years after his death, Bishop Bell was numbered among the transgressors by his old church, and said to have been a paedophilic abuser.
The church itself issued a public statement which correctly referred to the anonymous accusations against the late Bishop Bell as ‘allegations’, but in all other respects treated the claim as if it were a proven fact. Money had been paid in compensation. The current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, was said to have written to ‘the survivor’, apologising. He explained, ‘I am committed to ensuring that the past is handled with honesty and transparency.’ There were ‘expert independent reports’ (which have not been published). None ‘found any reason to doubt the veracity of the claim’.
The Sussex police, meanwhile, ‘confirmed’ that the information obtained from their inquiries would have led to Bishop Bell’s arrest, had he not been dead. Who can doubt this, given modern police forces’ strong interest in investigating such allegations against prominent people? But it merely draws attention to the long delay between the alleged offence and accusation. Had the bishop survived until the first allegation was made in 1995, he would have been 112 years old. As it turned out, he had been dead for 37 years, which is perhaps why the church did little at the time, and the police were not called to arrest and interrogate the bishop’s bones. The charges go even further back, and refer to alleged events in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The church’s document on the affair was available online and quickly found its way to the desks of several newspaper correspondents. Unqualified headlines resulted, and stories which proclaimed without reservation that the late bishop ‘was’ a paedophile, and ‘committed’ sexual abuse. ‘Eminent bishop was paedophile, admits church,’ said one. ‘Church’s “deep sorrow” over abuse by bishop,’ said another. ‘C of E admits “saintly” bishop abused child,’ said a third. There were plenty of inverted commas on display but none were placed around the accusation. No doubt this did not distress the Church of England, which has suffered several undoubted (and poorly handled) cases of proven abuse and which is anxious to show that it is now sound and rigorous on this subject.
All this is completely understandable. And yet it fills me with a powerless sense of outrage and injustice. It is perfectly possible that the allegations are true. But this is not some Jimmy Savile affair in which a great cloud of witnesses testify against a person, recently dead, whose life and works do not do very much to undermine the charges against him.
George Bell, among much else to his credit, was one of the first in Britain to see the National Socialist menace. He was the dauntless ally and reliable friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He opened his beautiful palace to exiles and handed it over to evacuees during the war. Against the tide of opinion, he pleaded the cause of anti-Nazi refugees in this country who were foolishly rounded up during the invasion panic of 1940.
Such a person may conceivably have been a secret abuser of children. But didn’t this fair, just, brave man (these things are proven) deserve the simple justice of the presumption of innocence, and those protections so majestically summed up in the sixth amendment to the US constitution — to be given speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation, to be confronted with witnesses against him, to have compulsory process to obtain witnesses in his favour, and to have the assistance of counsel in his defence?
Well, he cannot have any of these things because he is dead. And he left no descendants to defend his honour. In which case it is surely up to us, not least to those in the church (whose main duty is to uphold the good even if they are reviled for it) to try to provide some sort of justice.
By all means comfort and assuage the accuser, and compensate him or her (we are not even allowed to know the sex of the person involved). But in the absence of a timely, fair trial, did it serve the purposes of justice and goodness to make the matter public? To a secular mind, there is no difficulty in sacrificing the reputation of a dead man for what you think is a good cause. To those who believe in the immortal soul, or say they do, it is surely not quite so simple. As for those journals of record who presented allegations as proven fact, would they have dared treat any living person of such reputation in this way? Surely one of the things my trade most needs to prove is that it can and will act fairly without a judge or a regulator breathing down its neck.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.