Church of England issues apology to surviving victim of bishop afforded the Anglican version of a saint’s day
A former Church of England bishop revered as a peacemaker – and granted the closest thing Anglicanism has to a saint’s days – was a paedophile, the Church has acknowledged.
George Bell, who was bishop of Chichester for 30 years until his death in 1958, sexually assaulted a child, who is still alive, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The Church of England has issued a formal apology to the victim, who wishes to remain anonymous and has asked even for their gender not to be disclosed, and settled a legal claim for compensation.
The victim first came forward in 1995 but the complaint was effectively ignored by the then Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp, who died in 2009.
It was not until the victim contacted the office of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, two years ago that the allegations were finally investigated properly.
Bell is the second bishop from the Diocese of Chichester to have been acknowledged as a sexual predator, just over two weeks after Peter Ball, the former Bishop of Lewes, was jailed for abusing 19 young men.
The Church of England, working with the NSPCC, has set up a confidential helpline for anyone affected by the news and has urged other victims of anyone with information of historic clerical abuse to come forward in confidence.
Bell is revered for his role as a crucial ally of the German underground resistance movement under the Nazis and later as a peacemaker between the two countries as well as a pioneer of the ecumenical movement.
He was a close friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the heroic German theologian who was executed for his association with a plot to assassinate Hitler, who is commemorated above the door of Westminster Abbey among a line-up of “modern saints”.
He also counted Gandhi and Nehru among his friends and helped lay the foundations for the thaw in relations between Anglicans and Roman Catholics before Second Vatican Council, with close contacts including Cardinal Giovanni Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI.
It is widely thought he would have been made Archbishop of Canterbury following the death of William Temple in 1944 but for his public denunciation of Allied bombing of Dresden.
In 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said it “would have been a good thing” if Bell had been given the role.
He has an annual commemoration, the Anglican equivalent of a feast day, on October 3, the anniversary of his death.
A spokesman for the Church said would now be up to the General Synod to formally remove him from the calendar of commemorations but signalled he is unlikely ever to be commemorated again.
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Although Bell could not be questioned having died almost 60 years ago, the Church said it had investigated the victim’s allegations ahead of what would have been a civil case and accepted their account as being true on the balance of probabilities.
It is the latest in a long line of sexual abuse cases centred on the Diocese of Chichester to come to light.
The current Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, has written to the victim to express his “deep sorrow”.
“The abuse of children is a criminal act and a devastating betrayal of trust that should never occur in any situation, particularly the church,” he said.
Tracey Emmott, the victim’s lawyer, said: “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.”
She added: “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.”
A spokesman for the Church of England added: “The immediate challenge is to come to terms with the shock of this, feel the deep shame of it and express profound apologies to the survivor.
“Whether the name should be formally removed [from the calendar of commemorations] is an issue for another day and involves a full Synodical process.
“But the present inclusion in the Church’s calendar requires no one to mark the day and in the light of this news it will be up individual clergy and parishes whether they wish to continue to do so.”
A spokeswoman for the NSPCC said: “Every child abuse survivor must feel confident that, when they speak out, they will be taken seriously.
"The Church made a grave error in not reporting this crime to the police immediately, and we hope that lessons will be learned from this matter.
"It is crucial that children get the right level of protection from those who use the church as a cloak to hide their dark crimes."