A statement on a case of child sexual abuse dating back to the 1940s and 1950s was issued today by the Church of England. The Rt Revd George Bell is honored by commemoration in both the Church of England and in the Episcopal Church on the anniversary of his death, October 3rd.
On the Diocese of Chichester website, the announcement is annotated by this personal comment from the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd Dr Martin Warner:
The statement to follow communicates news that has brought us a bewildering mix of deep and disturbing emotions. In touching the legacy and reputation of George Bell, it yields a bitter fruit of great sadness and a sense that we are all diminished by what we are being told.
Our starting point is response to the survivor. We remain committed to listening to all allegations of abuse with an open mind. In this case, the scrutiny of the allegation has been thorough, objective, and undertaken by people who command the respect of all parties. We face with shame a story of abuse of a child; we also know that the burden of not being heard has made the experience so much worse. We apologise for the failures of the past.
The revelation of abuse demands bravery on the part of a survivor, and we respect the courage needed to tell the truth. We also recognise that telling the truth provides a legitimate opportunity for others to come forward, sometimes to identify the same source of abuse.
We also believe that in the Church of England as a whole, and certainly in the diocese of Chichester, we have done all we can to ensure that our safeguarding policies reflect best practice, and are fully and evenly implemented. The statement below speaks of an earlier report of this case, in the 1990’s. There will no doubt be some who allege a cover-up by the Church. We acknowledge that the response then would not be adequate by today’s standards, although that falls far short of a cover-up. In the present context, the diocese of Chichester has worked with Police and other agencies to ensure that we have sought the fullest understanding possible of what happened.
Please hold in your prayers all victims of abuse, especially those who have never been able to seek or receive help and a proper response. Please pray for all who are affected by this news, especially those who are our ecumenical partners, those unable to comprehend its implications, and those whose faith is damaged by it. Please pray for the diocese of Chichester, for each other, lay and ordained, as we seek to remain faithful to our apostolic mission in spite of much that could discourage and deter us.
Bishop Warner alludes to the change in safeguarding policies and standards between the time of the offences, the time of their first reporting in the 1990s, and the present day. The Church of England statement includes part of his personal response to the victim in this case:
The survivor first reported the abuse to the then Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, in August 1995. Bishop Kemp responded to the correspondence offering pastoral support but did not refer the matter to the police or, so far as is known, investigate the matter further. It was not until contact with Lambeth Palace in 2013 that the survivor was put in touch with the safeguarding team at the Diocese of Chichester who referred the matter to the police and offered personal support and counselling to the survivor.
In his letter to the survivor Bishop Warner acknowledges that the response from the Diocese of Chichester in 1995, when the survivor first came forward, “fell a long way short, not just of what is expected now, but of what we now appreciate you should have had a right to expect then.”
The Church statement included words from the survivor’s solicitor:
Tracey Emmott, the solicitor for the survivor, today issued the following statement on behalf of her client:
“The new culture of openness in the Church of England is genuinely refreshing and seems to represent a proper recognition of the dark secrets of its past, many of which may still not have come to light. While my client is glad this case is over, they remain bitter that their 1995 complaint was not properly listened to or dealt with until my client made contact with Archbishop Justin Welby’s office in 2013. That failure to respond properly was very damaging, and combined with the abuse that was suffered has had a profound effect on my client’s life. For my client, the compensation finally received does not change anything. How could any amount of money possibly compensate for childhood abuse? However, my client recognises that it represents a token of apology. What mattered to my client most and has brought more closure than anything was the personal letter my client has recently received from the Bishop of Chichester.”
George Kennedy Allen Bell is included in the Episcopal Church calendar of commemorations known as Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints. He is honored as
a major voice in the Church of England during the Second World War and a major figure on the ecumenical stage during the post-war era.
Born in Hampshire in 1883, Bell trained for ordination at Christ Church, Oxford, and Wells Theological College. Ordained to the priesthood in 1908, he served for several years in inner city Leeds among the poor and disenfranchised, and experience that would shape the remainder of his ministry. He became the chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, in 1914, becoming Dean of Canterbury in 1924 and Bishop of Chichester in 1929.
HWHM continues to describe Bell’s collaboration with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and hte Confessing Church in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, and his active assistance to Jews and non-Aryans escaping Nazi Germany.
It has been widely presumed that his outspokem condemnation of hte indscriminate bombing of German cities during hte war cost him the See of Canterbury after the death of Archbishop William Temple in 1944. In the post-was era, Bell was a staunch critic of the cold war and the nuclear arms race.
Bell’s continuing legacy is surely his stature as an ecumenist.
Photo credit: George Bell, via Lambeth Palace Library