When Desmond Browne QC volunteered his services to Mrs [ Barbara] Whitley [93-year-old niece of the late Bishop George Bell], she was no doubt pleased that her long-dead uncle would have the previously denied skilled advocate at the table to evaluate and challenge evidence, assumptions and conclusions, and to make submissions as the matter unfolded. In this position, of course, he would not be participating in the making of the decisions, and could legitimately be asked to withdraw during decision-making deliberations. Core groups were once commonplace for me, with familiar modes of operation. Unfortunately, so far as I can ascertain, nobody making and shaping decisions on behalf of the church has any such personal experience of what is all in a day’s work a safeguarding lawyer.
But, inexplicably, Mrs Whitley’s choice of advocate was denied by the church.
Upon hearing of this decision, my fellow Synod legal colleague David Lamming and I presented a carefully evaluated case for letting Mrs Whitley have her wish, buttressed by warnings of the highly predictably adverse PR consequences for failing to do so, enhanced with entreaties and exhortations to ‘do the right thing’.
We had a prompt meeting with those who made and defended the refusal. We appreciated their willingness to listen, putting the case I now share, without success. It should not have been necessary. We can over-intellectualise these matters, but the man on the Clapham omnibus could have advocated the case for Mrs Whitley having her free choice of lawyer succinctly. It was, in John Cleese’s succinct if not-quite-biblical phrase, ‘bleeding obvious’.
George Bell’s niece is an elderly lady. She has suffered and continues to suffer prolonged anxiety as her long-dead relative has been and continues to be publicly traduced by the Church of England on the basis of a single uncorroborated allegation brought 60 years after the event, all as a result of inadequate process that need not be restated. You might have expected a compassionate and contrite church to have been on its mettle, but, as usual, the consideration of the little people gave way to what can best be described as institutional bullying – which will come as no surprise to the many dissatisfied victims of abuse at the hands of the church, some of whom gathered outside Church House the following day.
I am puzzled that so many sincere and ethically-aware Christians cannot see that one of the best ways of honouring past victims is not to create new ones.