Bishop of Chelmsford calls for statutory guidelines on historic abuse allegations, responds to concerns about George Bell case

On 30th June 2016 Lord Lexden led a debate in the House of Lords, “That this House takes note of the case for introducing statutory guidelines relating to the investigation of cases of historical child sex abuse.” During the debate Lord Lexden raised the case of Bishop George Bell, as did Lord Carey and a number of other Peers. The Bishop of Chelmsford, Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, responded to the points made by those Peers about the Bell case and his speech is reproduced below, with extracts from the frontbench responses. All speeches made in the debate can be read here.

14.06.09 Chelmsford 3The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Lexden, for bringing this debate before us and for the considered and careful way in which people have made their contributions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that this House has an important part to play in setting our moral compass on the issues we are discussing.

I wish to make it clear that I and the Church of England welcome the introduction of some statutory guidelines for responding to historic allegations. As we in the Church are acutely aware, this is a difficult and sensitive area, so responding well to such allegations is extremely important. If there was statutory guidance on such cases, it would be easier to respond well and consistently. That said, we are all aware that the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse may make relevant recommendations, and it might be that the Government wish to wait for them before issuing guidance in this area.

The noble Lords, Lord Lexden and Lord Dear, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, and others have raised the specific case of Bishop George Bell, and I want to reflect briefly on it. The Church acknowledges his principled and courageous stand during the Second World War against the saturation bombing of civilians and the extraordinary contribution he made to peace, at no small personal cost. We also acknowledge the very significant part he played in the ecumenical movement. I feel this keenly myself. I served for a short time as a priest in the Chichester diocese and I am one of a small group of bishops who are active in the peace movement, so in a small way by comparison, I have known what it is like to be misunderstood and vilified for that witness. Bishop Bell has been someone from whom I personally have drawn enormous inspiration. It is therefore a very painful blow to me, as it is to many in the Church and in wider society—as has been evidenced by some of the things others have said in this debate—that a man of such extraordinary gifts could also have been so flawed. But the Church, of all institutions, should not find it conceptually difficult that great gifts and talents may coexist with great flaws.

The decision to publish the allegation against Bishop Bell was not taken lightly, but we believe that it was the right decision in the circumstances. The Church, through a safeguarding core group which considered the evidence against him, tested over a period of 18 months the allegations made by someone referred to as “Carol” so far as possible over such a distance of time. Of course, as has been said, the process was greatly hampered by the fact that Bishop Bell and others were dead. Here, I want to thank the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, for her speech. We in this House and the Church need to consider very carefully what she said.

It also needs to be said that the core group did have the benefit of legal advice, the views of Sussex Police, evidence about the survivor’s connection with the Bishop’s Palace at Chichester and medical reports. Church staff also examined the Bell papers held in Lambeth Palace library. The legal advice was that, had the claim been tested by a court, on the balance of probabilities, Carol would have won her claim. In those circumstances, the proper thing to do was to settle the case rather than putting a survivor through the harrowing process of giving evidence. Having settled, the Church had to make the existence of the case known to allow for other survivors to come forward, if there were any, and because of Bishop Bell’s considerable status. If the Church had chosen to remain silent and the information had subsequently come out by another route, the Church would rightly have been criticised for instituting a cover-up and placing Bishop Bell’s reputation above justice for the survivor.

Saying all this gives me no joy at all, but we are hampered in commenting further on the process because of the importance of protecting Carol’s confidential information. We cannot answer many of the points that have been made without revealing information that could lead to her identification. However, the Church remains satisfied of the credibility of the allegation. As is good practice after any serious allegation, the Church has announced an independent review of the process that was used to assess the allegation made against Bishop Bell. I fear that I cannot answer all the specific questions that were asked in the course of this sombre and helpful debate—a debate that, I stress, I welcome—but I will make sure that answers, where possible, are given. However, I can comment on a few points that were raised.

First, it is not for the Church to breach the survivor’s confidentiality. She did choose to speak to the press, but that was because some in the George Bell Group had made hurtful comments about her. I need the House to be clear that we are not marking our own homework. The reviewer who will undertake this review is independent. I cannot tell noble Lords who that is, because the reviewer has not yet been appointed.

Lord Cormack: I apologise for interrupting but I would be most grateful if the right reverend Prelate said whether he is willing, with his colleagues, to arrange a private meeting with those of us who have spoken in this debate and who are very concerned about this matter, at which he would be able to say in confidence things he feels unable to say on the Floor of the House.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: I am able to say yes to that for myself; what I am not able to do is speak for those who are overseeing this case for the Church of England. Although I am happy to be standing here and speaking for the Church of England today, some noble Lords will realise that I am the duty Bishop this week and I have not been directly involved with any of these investigations. I am not saying that to distance myself, but I simply cannot speak for others on the question that the noble Lord has raised, though I give him my assurance that I will raise it with those who are overseeing this case.

I now turn to a couple of other things that were raised in the debate. It was suggested that the review might be a knee-jerk response to something that has happened. That is unfair. We are aware of the importance and sensitivity of this case. It also happens now to be standard practice for us to do such reviews when a Bishop has been accused. My own dear friend, Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester, was mentioned in the debate. That happened with his case. For the record, I ought to say that it was the police, not the Church, that released Michael Perham’s name.

Miscarriages of justice happen, people do things wrong and people investigating them get things wrong, but to call the prayerful, careful, sensitive and serious investigation “a kangaroo court” was a really rather unhelpful slur in an otherwise serious and helpful debate. There is a review taking place; it is a review of the process, which will enable us to learn lessons for future cases. New statutory guidance about the handling of such cases would be of great assistance to the Church of England, to many other institutions and to our nation.

Lord Carey of Clifton: Will the right reverend Prelate say something about the independent review? The majority of us who have spoken believe that there has been a miscarriage of justice; is there any chance that the independent review will reconsider the decision that was made by the civil court action?

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: It is my understanding that the independent reviewer, who, as I say, has not yet been appointed, nor called for submissions, will review the process. What he or she does after that is a matter for them.

Lord Lexden: I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate. Will he ensure that the Bell group’s report is fully and properly considered in the places where it needs to be considered, and that as full a response as possible is forthcoming? It is a most serious and full document, and for it to be set on one side by those to whom it was directed would be a grave and unfortunate matter. I urge the right reverend Prelate to make sure that that process of setting aside the carefully considered report does not happen.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: I thought that I had finished speaking but I am happy to continue if your Lordships wish.

Noble Lords: No.


Lord Paddick (LD frontbench) [extract]: ..Many have talked about the case of Bishop George Bell. I confess my ignorance in that I know nothing about the bishop or his character. All I would say is that my experience is that, despite somebody’s apparently impeccable character, that individual could have one flaw that is kept secret but could undermine all the other evidence of their good character…

Lord Tunnicliffe (Lab frontbench) [extract]: … I also thank right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for explaining the really difficult dilemma the Church of England faced. It may not satisfy noble Lords, but at least it gave some perspective. I am a bureaucrat and could see myself in the middle of that dilemma, thinking “Where do we go, how do we make this as fair as possible, whose interest do we have to defend?”

The Advocate-General for Scotland (Lord Keen of Elie) (Con) [extract]: …Because it is the police who are the proper authority to investigate such allegations, the Government have no plans to extend or issue statutory guidance on investigating child sexual abuse more widely to other public bodies or institutions….Institutions might need to investigate claims as the result of civil proceedings being brought against them. How they do this is essentially a matter for each organisation or institution on a case-by-case basis. Each body will have its own circumstances and procedures, both now and in the past, by which it must be guided. I do not believe that central prescription in the form of statutory guidance would assist them in undertaking this important duty. Indeed, imposing a unilateral process on so many disparate organisations may lead to less transparency and fairness rather than more….

… It would not be appropriate for me to comment specifically on the particular cases highlighted during this debate, but I understand the concerns of my noble friend and others in this place about the process of these investigations. As noble Lords will now be aware, the Church of England announced on 28 June that an independent person will be appointed to review the processes used in the Bishop Bell case. However, my noble friend Lord Lexden will be aware that this was a civil, rather than a criminal, matter. It was entirely open for the complainant in that case to pursue a civil claim. Once that claim was issued, it was for the Church of England to consider the facts of the case and to decide whether to settle or to go to trial, and for the claimant to decide whether to agree to a proposed settlement. The parties to any civil dispute are entitled to reach a private settlement. They do not need to initiate any legal proceedings to do so and settlement of a dispute out of court is common. Of course, litigation should be a remedy of last resort. The role of the state in this context is to provide the court system to determine disputes that cannot otherwise be resolved….

…The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton, suggested that civil action should never be used but, with respect, those who claim to have been the victim of a wrong must in a free society have access to courts of justice that can resolve the issue of that wrong…


%d bloggers like this: