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JUSTICE FOR BISHOP GEORGE BELL, FRIEND OF DIETRICH BONHOEFFER

In October 2015 the Church of England announced that it had made a financial settlement with a claimant, known only as “Carol” to preserve anonymity, who alleged child sexual abuse against her in the late 1940s/early 1950s by George Bell, bishop of Chichester, who died in 1958. Bell is famous as an outspoken and prophetic figure for peace and justice, as the closest British friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as a stalwart supporter of the Confessing Church and the German resistance to Hitler, and as a pioneer in the modern ecumenical movement.

The allegation that Bell was a paedophile (which the Church leadership appears to have accepted) together with the procedure employed in its investigation has been contested by a group of senior lawyers, church figures, academics and journalists ("The George Bell Group"),  of which Keith Clements, IBS member in the UK, is a member. The Group produced a detailed report seriously questioning, on legal and historical grounds, the Church's handling of the case and the reliability of the evidence as it had emerged thus far. The press statement of the George Bell Group, and other relevant material, can be found on the website: http://www.georgebellgroup.org/.

 Throughout 2016 the George Bell Group called on the leadership of the Church of England to institute an independent review, and this call was supported by many hundreds of individuals both in the UK and overseas who honour the memory, and wish to uphold the legacy, of George Bell. Keith Clements gave a report at the International Bonhoeffer Congress in Basel, in July 2016. In the UK there was public debate on the issue, at both national and diocesan level in the Church of England, in the press and also in Parliament (House of Lords).

 On 23 November 2016 the Church announced that there would indeed be an independent review, conducted by Lord Alex Carlile, who is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and senior lawyer. The George Bell Group has issued the following statement:

The George Bell Group welcome the announcement on 23 November 2016 that Lord Carlile of Berriew is to be the independent reviewer of the process which led to the statement by the Church of England on 22 October 2015 that the Bishop of Chichester had issued a formal apology following the settlement of a legal civil claim regarding allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop Bell. 

In their own Review of the case, dated 17 March 2016, the George Bell Group strongly urged that justice to the memory of Bishop Bell demanded that there should be a “proper review of both the process and the evidence which resulted in the October statement".  Although the announcement of Lord Carlile's Review states that it will "look at the processes surrounding the allegations", the Group note that by its Terms of Reference it "will provide a detailed evidence-based analysis of the responses and decision making processes concerning the case". Accordingly, we welcome the statement made by Lord Carlile, as reported in the Church Times on 25 November 2016, that "investigating the Church's own inquiries into the truth of Carol's complaint would be the 'heart' of his job", and his further statement that "material from both inside and outside the C of E would be considered, including any written evidence submitted by Bell's defenders".  We trust we can infer from this that Lord Carlile does not intend to limit his review to examining “process”, but will look afresh at the validity or otherwise of the allegations made against Bishop Bell. We welcome this warmly and will be making a detailed submission to the Review.

The Group further notes that it is the Church of England which will "determine whether the full report can be sufficiently redacted or otherwise anonymised to enable its publication without risking disclosure of the complainant's identity".  We have never sought to have the anonymous complainant identified. However the continuing refusal of the Church to publish its evidence, even in redacted form to protect her identity, and the failure to disclose clearly the process by which its “Core Group” reached their conclusions has created much public misgiving. On that account, once Lord Carlile’s Review is complete the maximum transparency possible will be crucial to redressing that misgivingand regaining public confidence.

Keith Clements adds: “Those of us on the George Bell Group are very grateful to all those not only in Britain but in other countries too, who have shared our concerns and who have supported the case for an independent review. We hope that George Bell who fought so hard for justice on behalf of so many people in his lifetime will now receive just treatment to his memory.”

 

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