The Archbishop of Canterbury has once again been dragged into a battle between traditionalists and modernisers. This time though it’s not about gay marriage or women bishops, but the tattered reputation of one of the Church of England’s most-celebrated figures, Bishop George Bell.
Justin Welby was sorely mistaken if he hoped commissioning an independent report into the claim that Bell was a child abuser would draw a line under this messy two-year row. Instead, the report found that the church has made mistakes in the way it handled the accusations. This infuriated Bell’s supporters, who always maintained his innocence. Now, some are calling for Welby to walk, or at least apologise. But he refuses to do either.
Even Welby’s supporters would probably concede that his refusal to back down has poured fuel on the fire. In his report, Lord Carlile was scathing about the way the Church of England had handled things, suggesting that it had ‘rushed to judgement’ when it decided the allegations against Bell were probably true. Carlile also concluded that Bell, who died in 1958, had not been given a fair hearing. Yet Welby continued to cast doubt on Bell’s integrity, issuing a statement saying: ‘We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name…Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness… No human being is entirely good or bad’.
This response has done little to calm Bell’s supporters. Now, three open letters chastising Welby have been published. In one of these, a group of historians, including Sir Ian Kershaw, call for Welby to take back his remarks about Bell: ‘We cannot understand how such an unsupported, indeed insupportable, allegation can be upheld by a responsible public authority. Quite simply, it is indefensible’.