The cynic in me wonders whether there were any PR machinations involved in the fact that the publication of Lord Carlile’s review was sandwiched between the fawning and ingratiating visit of Radio 4’s Today programme to Lambeth Palace last week and the joyous announcement of Sarah Mullally’s appointment to London.
Surely not? But in my opinion, the Church of England has become a place where appearances matter more than the reality. Friday is, after all, a good day for burying bad news.
I do not think, however, that the debacle over George Bell will be easily forgotten, not least because to use the words of Lord Carlile, Church of England leaders have been less than ‘adroit’ in their reaction to his excoriating report.
Lord Carlile’s report is a model of brevity and propriety. It is a line-by-line study of something approaching a slow-motion train wreck. The story told is one in which hapless leaders believed positively ancient allegations with little understanding of the principles at stake and then did little or nothing to investigate the veracity of allegations. To compound their errors they were too concerned about the reputation of the Church and gave almost no consideration to the reputation of a long-dead man (and there was absolutely no thought given to surviving members of the Bell family). The minutiae of the mess is to be found in the unprofessional and bungled composition and process of the so-called Core Group.
But it is the Church of England’s response to the report that is most disappointing. Having appointed one of the most distinguished lawyers in the land, the Church of England failed to understand his key recommendation, which is also a basic principle of British justice, that a person is innocent until proven guilty. The Archbishop of Canterbury hides behind the Church of England’s recent conversion to transparency to reject Carlile’s central recommendation that, in certain cases where liability cannot be proven and is not accepted, the Church of England should explore a confidentiality agreement to preserve the anonymity of the accused.
But senior leaders of the Church of England demonstrate that they do not understand basic principles of justice in rejecting this recommendation out-of-hand, and they certainly have not understood Lord Carlile’s report.
The Church of England should have refused to name George Bell because the allegations against him couldn’t meet even a lower threshold of a civil standard of proof. That is primarily because even a deceased person should have a defence and the Church of England gave no dignity to Bell by refusing to recognise this.
I fear that the Church of England at its highest level lacks leaders who understand basic principles of justice.
But the serious problem is the Church of England has now badly handled all of its recent reviews, especially the Elliott review. Additionally, I have no doubt that it will not be long before the Gibb review will be found to be inadequate when IICSA looks into the Diocese of Chichester next March and Peter Ball next July.
The House of Bishops is currently responsible for safeguarding but there is an urgent case for the involvement of an independent safeguarding body. Members of General Synod are agitating for a serious debate on the ongoing problems of the Church on safeguarding, but action must begin before the February sessions.
My personal hope is that the Church of England’s senior leaders wake up to the problem, which is driven by a culture of fear, rather than a proper culture of compassion and justice. In particular, the Church’s longest-standing leaders, especially the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, a former high court judge who suffered under Idi Amin because of his stand for justice, must step up to the plate. A way must be found to bring all interested parties together– including victims and complainants, those falsely-accused, Church leaders, lawyers, politicians and representatives of clergy and laity in General Synod — in a serious attempt to bring about change in the Church of England before the Independent Inquiry introduces its own possibly unwelcome, unwanted, intrusive and even misguided reforms.
–The Church of England Newspaper, December 22/29 1017 edition; subsriptions are encouraged