Britain has been rocked in recent years by a weird scandal concerning sexual abuse—a man using the code-name “Nick,” who turned out to be a serial liar, accused a number of prominent people of hideous sexual crimes. After a lengthy police investigation costing some £2 million, it emerged that there was no truth in any of his lurid stories.
Among those he smeared was D-Day hero Field Marshall Lord Bramhall, now in his 90s, who was harried by the police while he was caring for his gravely ill wife. She died before his name was cleared. It later emerged that the fantasist “Nick” has a history of making false allegations, including hoax calls to the police.
Of course the difficulty with this whole subject is that there have been ghastly cases of sexual abuse—in various institutions including the Church. Perpetrators must of course be brought to justice. But in Britain this had been translated into a sort of wild assumption of accepting the veracity of any and every allegation, provided it names someone in public life.
Which brings us to the case of Bishop George Bell of Chichester. The Anglican Communion has no procedure for canonizing saints, but it does commemorate in its calendar some men and women of modern times whose lives were known to be saintly, and Bell, who died in 1958, is one of these.
A friend and champion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other German anti-Nazis, a helper of refugees and displaced people in Europe, a supporter of the arts who commissioned T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Bell was a revered figure. He was a man of traditional Christian beliefs, with a strong sense of moral purpose. In a rather tragic way, he had been somewhat forgotten in today’s Britain, until recently.
Today, his reputation has been smeared, and in a strange series of events that has attracted considerable debate, Anglican organizations and schools that once honored him are changing their names or removing references to him. He has been assumed to be guilty of a crime without adequate attempts to discover the truth.
Decades after Bell died, a woman made an unsubstantiated claim that he had sexually molested her when she was five years old. In the 1990s she claimed that in the late 1940s she used to stay at the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester when a relative worked there in the evenings, and that the bishop sexually abused her while offering to read her a bedtime story. She repeated her story in 2013. Without contacting any of Bell’s former colleagues or family members, or consulting any of his diaries or other papers, or seeking to reach any other people who were working at the Palace at the time, the Church of England made a substantial financial payout to the woman, who has given several media interviews, slightly changing her story from time to time.
I first became interested in Bell’s life and work in the 1980s, while living in Berlin. He had been a courageous supporter of Germany’s anti-Nazi plotters 40 years earlier. I was struck by the personality of this remarkable man, who had a quality of leadership and conviction that is definitely missing from today’s Anglican scene.
And I think they are embarrassed by him. Venerated in the years after his death, he now seems an outdated figure. The photographs show him in traditional ecclesiastical dress, he wrote and spoke in a formal style, and his whole academic and theological background is such as to make him seem extremely old-fashioned. He was born in Queen Victoria’s reign, was a Queen’s Scholar at Westminster School, took a First in Oxford in Classics, and after ordination worked as a curate in a poor parish in an industrial area of Leeds. His early ecumenical efforts made him an innovator at the time but now just seem routine, and later as bishop his launching of the Canterbury Festival, his encouragement of leading Anglican writers such as John Masefield and Dorothy L. Sayers, and his impressive speeches in the House of Lords, all appear as merely the standard activities of an establishment figure.
But he was actually a man of courage, with a remarkable record of practical help for those in need. An early and passionate opponent of the Nazis—at a time when many in Britain were actually quite sympathetic towards them or dismissed them as merely ridiculous—he worked tirelessly for Jewish and other refugees from Germany. Later, in wartime, he opposed the area bombing of German cities, which he described as “threatening the roots of civilization”: this incurred the anger of Winston Churchill but in light of what we now know of the horrors of Dresden and Hamburg his message has conviction
The claims about sexual abuse are odd. There are various people still alive who could have been asked about some details of the woman’s story, but they have not been contacted. Records show that no one arrived to work in the evenings at the Palace, and no one has any recollection of any member of staff ever bringing a child to stay there. There were no facilities for staff to stay, much less to bring any family members. The bishop’s chaplain, who spent most of his time in the Bishop’s Palace every day, and the doorman, who saw everyone who came and went at all times, have no memory of any staff bringing a child when working. The woman alleged that the bishop stood on a set of stairs leading to the kitchen, but there is no such staircase, and in those days the building now known as the “Bishop’s Kitchen” was part of a theological college and not the bishop’s residence. The bishop was in fact abroad for part of the time the alleged abuse occurred.
A Bell support group has produced a detailed report, and it has been urged that as a matter of justice to Bell’s name, the matter be properly examined. But, to date, the official attitude of the Church of England has been to accept the allegations are true, and to refer to the woman making the allegations as a “survivor.”
Bell is honored with a plaque in Chichester Cathedral and a number of schools and other institutions have been named after him. In a lifetime of service to the Church of England and to the wider community, he collaborated with, among others, Mahatma Ghandi and Father Giovanni Montini—the future Pope Paul VI—and was known both as a patriot and a campaigner for peace.
It seems only fair that the Church of England should allow a rather fuller investigation before considering the case against Bishop Bell closed. It is interesting, and slightly worrying, to speculate about what other notable figures of the recent past might be subjected to this sort of thing.