17 February 2016
Has believing the victim policy sullied the name of a much-admired bishop?
Church of England compensates alleged victim despite Bishop George Bell dying in 1958
Has Bishop George Bell – the Anglican Bishop of Chichester from 1929 to 1958, and one of the Church of England’s greatest figures - become a victim of the rule that people who complain of sexual abuse must always be believed? This principle was applied by police forces across the country in the wake of the Jimmy Savile affair, and has caused no end of problems. Now it has caused a major problem for the Church of England too, which has been accused of rubbishing the reputation of a good man and ignoring the presumption that someone accused of crime is innocent until proved guilty. Innocent may not be quite the right word, as the bishop is dead. But there is such a thing as the benefit of the doubt, and he should be given it.
On the basis of one complaint last autumn – about an alleged series of abusive episodes in the 1940s - the Church has formally apologised and paid compensation. In a statement, it implied not only that there were no reasons to disbelieve the victim, but that the allegations were actually true. It did not say why it thought so, and no further evidence has come to light.
Bishop Bell died in 1958, and has since become an iconic figure for his many brave interventions in public affairs not least for standing up to Winston Churchill to protest at the devastating bombing of German cities. He was also a key link with the plotters who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. If he really was a paedophile, as a headline in the Daily Telegraph branded him, then all that heroism counts for naught. He will have to be removed from the Church of England liturgical calendar of notable persons, an Anglican saint in effect, and anything named after him will have to be renamed. His name will for ever be remembered with shame. But is this fair? Many people do not think so.
The change of approach by the police was an effort to correct their previous tendency not to take complaints of sexual abuse seriously. So any victims who had had the courage to complain suffered again, and subsequently there were even more victims. That pattern has also occurred in the Church. Indeed, the same person first complained about Bishop Bell 20 years ago, but did not feel the matter had been properly dealt with at the time. There was a suspicion of a cover-up, nowadays seen as just as deplorable as the abuse that was covered up.
“Believing the victim” was brought in as the antidote to cover-up. It caused the police to open investigations into complaints against public figures such as Lord Brittan, a distinguished former Home Secretary and Vice President of the European Commission, and Lord Bramall, a Field Marshal and one of Britain’s most illustrious military leaders. Sir Edward Heath, the former Prime Minister, also came under suspicion. These cases were eventually closed with no further action, and all three famous men are now dead. There is no doubt they were handled insensitively, however, and as a result there have been calls for the resignation of Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
In response, he has recently said that the “believing the victim” principle may need modification. And for doing so he has been attacked for wanting to go back to the bad old days, when, as one critic put it, “the desk sergeant closed his notebook and shooed the complainant back into the street.” There is a paradox here. Had the then Bishop of Chichester, Dr Eric Kemp, referred the original complaint to the police two decades ago – and his not doing so was part of the renewed complaint last year – who knows whether some Sussex Police desk sergeant might have been equally dismissive? The alleged perpetrator had died long before, so there was no possibility of a prosecution.
There is no way of knowing, therefore, what the outcome would have been. I strongly suspect an investigation might never have started and in any case would have gone nowhere. So George Bell’s name could have ended up alongside Leon Brittan, Edwin Bramall and Edward Heath, as cases the police had dropped for lack of sufficient evidence on which to base a prosecution.
There are important matters of principle here. There is at least a possibility that “always believing the victim” could encourage fanciful or malicious complainants to come forward. And what happens when “always believing the victim” collides with “innocent until proved guilty”? Which of them prevails? There are problems either way. If the presumption of innocence was applied by the Church to George Bell, does it logically mean that the Church doesn’t believe the victim? Would the Church in effect be accusing her (we now know her gender but not her identity) of lying, or at least of mistaking the identity of her abuser - she was small child at the time? Could it do that?
I can imagine an argument that says the victim is still with us, while George Bell is safely out of harm’s way, so the interests of the living must take precedence over the interests of the dead. But one does also have to say that that approach has made several other people – we cannot say how many – very angry indeed. They greatly admired Bishop Bell; so they too are hurt. Indeed the whole Church of England has been damaged by the discrediting of one of its greatest men.
The alleged abuse happened in the period 1944-49. At such a distance of time, there can be no certainty about anything. The Church of England surely owes it to Bishop Bell, long dead though he is, to give him the benefit of such doubt as there is bound to be.
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