The Church’s disturbing rush to judgment
Justin Welby delivers his Christmas Day sermon at Canterbury Cathedral Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty   

This week, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) holds the latest of its hearings into the Catholic Church and the way it has dealt over the decades with paedophilia. If the evidence is as harrowing as that given at other IICSA hearings into the Churches – both Catholic and Anglican – it will expose the way in which priests who were trusted, by virtue of their holy orders and position in society, betrayed that trust by targeting vulnerable children and assaulting them.

And if the evidence is like that given at other similar IICSA hearings into the Ampleforth and Downside Schools, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Birmingham and the case of the former Anglican bishop of Gloucester, Peter Ball, it will reveal how people in positions of authority did little to stop the abuse, and often put the reputation of the ecclesiastical institution before the welfare of children.

The lasting impact of these IICSA hearings and coverage of court cases where priests have been put on trial has been profound. Many people seem to suspect any man of the cloth as a child abuser. One priest once recalled to me that an air stewardness on a flight from Rome accused him of being “one of those paedophiles”. Another remembered how, as a young cleric, he would visit families in his parish and would let the young children clamber all over him. Now, he would always avoid such a situation and knew other priests would similarly be careful in case their actions could be misconstrued.

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The last few years have also seen a marked decline in church going. Parishes which had been run by convicted priests find their pews are emptying. People have voted with their feet – and their money. Collections are down. Only 722,000 people attended Sunday services last year in the Church of England – a decline of 16,000 on the previous year and a continuing a trend over the past decade. Hatching, matching and dispatching is no longer an Anglican province: people are turning elsewhere for funerals, marriages and thanksgiving for babies.

It’s quite possible the fall-off might have happened anyway, given the trend of the past decade. But when an organisation that is supposed to have moral authority is continually in the news for sexual misbehaviour then it’s no wonder people turn away.

Even more disturbing, though also predictable, has been the instinct of the Church to revive its image by taking supposedly firm action – something that can be seen in the Church of England’s treatment of the late Bishop George Bell of Chichester.

No doubt the Church hopes to prove that it has learnt its lessons on dealing with abuse. It wants to be seen to be on the side of victims after years of failing to take them seriously. But the primary concern remains the standing of the institution.

Bell was one of the towering moral figures of the Church of England in the 20th century, and is remembered today for being a staunch critic during the Second World War of the Allies’ area bombing of the civilian population of Germany, calling the bombing of unarmed women and children barbarian.

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But in more recent times, Bell’s name has also become synonymous with abuse due to accusations made against him regarding assaults by him of children. The first was made in 1995, 37 years after his death, to the then Bishop of Chichester, but was not passed to the police until a second complaint against Bell was made to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in 2013.

By 2015 the diocese of Chichester had paid compensation to the first complainant, known only as Carol – in effect confirming to the public that it considered Bell guilty of the alleged assaults. The furore it unleashed, with supporters of Bell outraged by what they perceived as an injustice, led the Church of England to commission an independent review from QC Lord (Alex) Carlile but not into the truth of the allegations, only into the Church’s procedures. Carlile concluded in 2017 that there had been a rush to judgement and that the Church had felt it should be “supportive of the complainant”.

In other words, the Church of England had failed to be fair to George Bell, who was of course unable to defend himself. Although the Church of England did issue a statement apologising to Bishop Bell’s relatives, Archbishop Welby rejected calls to say that Bell’s name had been cleared. At the time, Welby said a “significant cloud” remained over Bell’s name.

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Then, last week, another official church report, by ecclesiastical lawyer Tim Briden, ruled that an allegation, made in the aftermath of the Carlile report, which the Church of England passed to police, was unfounded. The police did not take action. Although Archbishop Welby has apologised for mistakes “in the process surrounding the original allegation against George Bell”, he has not retracted the suggestion there is a cloud hanging over his name.

What is evident now is that Bishop Bell fell victim to the Church responding to public opprobrium. Compensation was paid to an alleged victim at a time when there was intense public interest in child abuse. The Church responded to moral outrage with moral panic, and Bell was its fall guy.

There have been other innocent priests who have suffered indignities following accusations. One priest I know was found not guilty of the abuse charges against him by a jury after a crown court trial, but he has been banished from his parish and not allowed to minister there again. Those accused, even if they are later found innocent, become pariahs.

This is a pattern of institutional behaviour seen elsewhere. Think of the way in which the police rushed to prove they now act swiftly when they announced that they were investigating accusations against former Prime Minister Edward Heath. Consider the decision of the BBC – its reputation traduced over the way it stalled on reporting the sexual abuse of its former star Jimmy Savile – which so enthusiastically reported on the police investigating Sir Cliff Richard that it used its news budget to hire a helicopter to film police entering the singer’s home. All notions of his innocence until proved guilty went out the window; viewers were given the impression this was a man under such deep suspicion that he was most likely guilty.

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The rush to take action, whether by the police, a broadcaster or a religious body, in the face of what is veering on public hysteria about abuse, gives the impression of organisations and institutions who want to be seen to be doing something about these terrible crimes. It also suggests the chief focus of attention remains the institution’s standing, rather than the well-being of individual victims. But just as hiding scandal eventually unravels, so do gestures that make victims of the innocent.

Nor does it help the real victims of abuse. If institutions spend time trying to enhance their sullied reputations through panicked attempts to be seen to be taking action, it leaves far less time for tackling real problems of abuse – and less time to consider the justice that victims deserve.

The IICSA hearings into the St Benedict’s School, and its associated church of Ealing Abbey, in West London, which is run by Benedictine monks, will be another opportunity to listen to the survivors of abuse.

There will be claims that some of the abuse took place 30 years before any action was taken against the perpetrators, yet when victims finally sued for compensation, it became evident that the abuse had been known to people in authority long before. For the victims, trying to repair the damage done by sexual assaults in their youth can take decades. Traducing the reputations of the innocent by the institutions who first turned a blind eye to crimes being committed does not help them. But painstaking efforts by those same institutions to improve their safeguarding of the vulnerable does offer some sort of consolation.