I had not thought that victory in a good cause after a long campaign would make me so angry. And yet I was angry. It is only at such moments that we can test the real currency of conscience and eternity against the counterfeit of everyday.
For I and my allies have just undoubtedly won a protracted struggle to restore the good name of Bishop George Bell of Chichester, outrageously condemned as a child abuser by the Church of England he once adorned.
The headlines and the bulletins have all described it as a victory. We will probably get much of what we have always wanted—for instance the restoration of Bell’s name to the buildings and institutions from which it was Stalinistically stripped after the accusations were first made. Indeed, a statue of him, intended for the west front of Canterbury Cathedral, but left incomplete when the charges were made, is now to be finished and put in its intended place. This is a vindication, if ever there was one.
Yet confronted with the poor, sad burbling thing which is a modern Anglican bishop, refusing even now to withdraw doubts about Bell’s innocence (absolutely presumed in English law), refusing to retract insinuations against his defenders, and in general lacking what I regard as proper contrition—it is this failure to confess and seek absolution which predominates in my mind. I did not just want justice or restitution for George Bell (though I did want them). I wanted his accusers to accept that a man’s good name, after he is dead, cannot lightly be trifled with. If you damage it, and you are wrong, you have a far greater duty to make restitution than if your victim is alive to refute and forgive you.
And I genuinely could not understand their view, which seems to be that, while George Bell may in fact be guilty of the filthy crimes alleged against him, his wider activities in the great world are still somehow valid and worth “celebrating” or whatever the word is. This is such rubbish. The cruel violation of a trusting child, concealed by abuse of power, and unconfessed, as is suggested, would completely cancel out any public virtue and turn it into slime and ashes. One’s hands reach for a millstone.
But I have had to put away my rage, and my growing fear for those who will not admit to what they have done. This is because the political victory cannot properly be exploited unless we, George Bell’s defenders, assert it.
And so I do, and it is quite clearly such a victory. After a struggle lasting nearly as long as the First World War, we have plainly won.
For the second time, allegations against him have proved on inquiry to be weak beyond belief, nowhere near the standard of proof of any court—and in the case of some of the latest ones actually laughable. In one of these accusations, the bishop is supposed to have engaged in homosexual congress, nine years after he was dead, with a man whose body was spread over some part (presumably the hood) of a Rolls Royce automobile which Bishop Bell did not ever possess. It is just possible to be charitable about whoever put this fantasy forward. This is plainly a troubled mind. It is impossible to be charitable to those who took it seriously and spent a ponderous year pretending to assess its worth, while Bishop Bell’s 93-year-old niece was kept in suspense about the outcome. You may study the embarrassing details here.
I have written about this case for First Things and will not dwell on the details. George Bell was for many a pattern of courage when he spoke out, almost alone, against what is now increasingly recognized as having been the mistaken deliberate bombing of German civilians during the 1939-45 war. He knew it would damage him to say this, yet he still said it, which is what his Lord and Master would have wished, even though it was very much not what Winston Churchill would have wished.
Today’s Anglican Church, a poor shivering thing these days, first smeared George Bell in October 2015. It was very worldly in its actions. It had issued a rather coy and ambiguous written statement on allegations against him which had emerged decades after his death in 1958. It was in fact so nebulous that there was later a quarrel about whether it had actually said he was guilty.
It did not really matter by then, as several major newspapers, national and local, and the BBC had somehow or other gained the confidence to state beyond doubt and without qualification that Bishop Bell had been a child abuser. As a journalist myself, who knows how such things happen, I have always believed that somebody must have encouraged them to take this bold step. News organizations are wary of publicly condemning people even when they are dead. But I have never been able to find out who it was.
What I am sure of is that their confident condemnations served the purpose of a Church trying hard to look decisive and stern about priestly abuse—a problem it has in fact handled very badly. For the Church, it was a free lunch. They could hurl a dead man’s reputation onto the rubbish-heap. Nobody would care, and they would appear to be showing resolve. Because they are new men, from a new era, they had no idea of the power and importance of the reputation they were destroying. Another generation on, and I suppose they would have got away with it. But they didn’t, and for that we can give thanks to the God of Justice and Mercy. You can expect to do a lot of praying if ever you get involved in such a case, because very often, despite your confidence in the rightness of your cause, you will be overpowered by the world’s willingness to tolerate and indeed defend naked injustice.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.