Recent events have a lot to teach us about attitudes towards violence against women

George Bell, photographed by Dorothy Hickling in the 1910s
© Public Domain

George Bell was the Bishop of Chichester for nearly 30 years, from June 1929 to October 1958. During World War II he was an outspoken critic of what we would now call carpet-bombing. He was an early advocate of the ecumenical movement and is commemorated in the Church of England’s liturgical calendar on 3 October each year – the closest equivalent to the Roman Catholic’s recognition of sainthood. His memory is revered and many public buildings and educational institutions are named after him.

Out of the blue, on 22 October 2015, the Church of England issued a statement saying that “the Bishop of Chichester has issued a formal apology following the settlement of a legal civil claim regarding sexual abuse” against Bishop Bell. The statement gave no details of the allegations, but said that the complainant had first reported the matter to the Diocese of Chichester in 1995. At that time, the Church’s response “fell a long way short, not just of what is expected now, but of what we now appreciate you should have had a right to expect then” the current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, said in a letter to the complainant that was quoted in the C of E’s statement.

Almost immediately, a torrent of opprobrium was unleashed on the Church of England and on Archbishop Justin Welby in particular. Supporters of Bishop Bell demanded to know who the victim was and the specifics of the allegations against George Bell, and they demanded to see the evidence on which the C of E had based its decision to settle the claim. Some supporters even sought to obtain “core participant status” at the forthcoming hearings into the Church of England by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).

The complainant is still alive and is protected by statutory life-long anonymity. So Bishop Bell’s supporters are in the wrong to demand to know who she is and to see the evidence in support of her claim. Details of her allegations did come out, however, a few months after the C of E’s statement when she gave an interview to the Brighton Argus. Using the pseudonym Carol, she said that Bishop Bell repeatedly molested her over a four year period from the age five until she and her family moved from the area at the age of nine.

I do not know if Carol’s allegations are true. The Church of England does not know whether Carol’s allegations are true. The Archbishop of Canterbury does not know whether Carol’s allegations are true. Bishop Bell’s supporters do not know whether Carol’s allegations are true. Only Carol knows whether the allegations are true.

It is the nature of most sexual abuse and sexual violence allegations that, often, the only people who know what really happened are the complainant and the alleged perpetrator. In this case, Bishop Bell is long dead – he died on 3 October 1958, while still serving as Bishop of Chichester.

But, on the balance of probabilities – which is the civil burden of proof – the C of E decided that Carol’s claim had merit and they made a settlement. Having done so, as part of their approach to transparency, they issued their controversial statement.

As with all such cases, the C of E appointed a suitably qualified individual to carry out an independent review. Senior lawyer Lord Carlile, the former Liberal Democrat MP who served as the Government’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, was asked to carry out the review. His findings – which did not include the guilt or otherwise of Bishop Bell, as that was outside his terms of reference – was that the C of E, in handling the case once Carol made her allegations again in 2013, had acted in good faith. But he did find a number of deficiencies in the C of E’s processes.

The C of E has accepted all but one of Lord Carlile’s 15 recommendations. Lord Carlile says that where a claim is settled “without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision: there should be a presumption that the name of the alleged perpetrator should not be published, unless the alleged perpetrator agrees that it should be, or the circumstances are held to be wholly exceptional (on reasonable grounds).”

It is difficult to see how such a provision could be upheld; and it is difficult to see how this could be seen as anything other than a cover-up.

The C of E has rejected this recommendation. Its lead bishop on safeguarding, the Bishop of Bath and Wells Pete Hancock, said: “The Church is committed to transparency. We would look at each case on its merits but generally would seek to avoid confidentiality clauses.”

Bishop Martin Warner said: “The emotive principle of innocent until proven guilty is a standard by which our actions are judged and we have to ensure as best we can that justice is seen to be done.”

And Archbishop Justin Welby said: “The C of E is committed to transparency and therefore we would take a different approach.”

They are right to resist calls for confidentiality. We have seen time and time again, in cases including Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris and John Worboys, to name just a few, that victims who have been too afraid to report what happened to them are more inclined to do so once they know they are not alone. We should all resist calls for anonymity for people accused of sexual offences.

The publication of the Carlile Review did not stop Bell’s supporters from attacking the C of E in general, and Archbishop Justin in particular.

In his statement on the publication of the Carlile Review, the Archbishop said: “The complaint about Bishop Bell does not diminish the importance of his great achievement. We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name. Let us therefore remember his defence of Jewish victims of persecution, his moral stand against indiscriminate bombing, his personal risks in the cause of supporting the anti Hitler resistance, and his long service in the Diocese of Chichester. No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness. Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good. Whatever is thought about the accusations, the whole person and whole life should be kept in mind.”

When I first read that, I interpreted it as an acknowledgment that Bishop Bell had done a lot of good; but that the allegation, which had not been proved beyond reasonable doubt – the criminal burden of proof – had left a cloud over his name because of the statement that the C of E had issued.

Bishop Bell’s supporters read it differently. They interpret the line “We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name” as Archbishop Justin saying that there is truth to the allegation.

I refer, briefly, to what I said earlier: the only person who knows is Carol.

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, seven “eminent academics” say that, having examined the allegations against Bishop Bell, there is “no credible evidence” that he sexually abused Carol. They don’t say how they have examined the allegations without access to the evidence, which neither Carol, nor the C of E, have published.

The academics – all male – state: “There is no credible evidence at all that Bishop Bell was a paedophile. We state this after reviewing all that is known about his character and behaviour over many years.”

In other words, “he is a very nice man who wouldn’t do such a thing!”

What, then, is the link between this and the Presidents Club furore?

Well, it was such a line that jumped out of me when I read the Financial Times’ expose of the Presidents Club Charity ball, in which young women, hired as “hostesses” for the evening, reported being groped and inappropriate sexual advances.

The founder of the agency hired to recruit the women, Caroline Dandridge of Artista, told the paper that it was “a really important charity fundraising event that has been running for 33 years and raises huge amounts of money for disadvantaged and underprivileged children’s charities.”

She continued: “There is a code of conduct that we follow, I am not aware of any reports of sexual harassment and with the calibre of guest, I would be astonished.”

In other words, “they are very nice men who wouldn’t do such a thing.”

So much has been written about the Presidents Club this week, that I don’t need to say much. But I will say this: the statement by Caroline Dandridge is disingenuous. I will go so far as saying she is either a liar or incompetent. And I would be happy to defend this claim, which is my honest opinion, in court should she consider it to be defamatory.

According to the Financial Times’ article, the women hired to work as hostesses for the night were given instructions on the type of underwear that they should wear. What bearing has underwear got to do with the ability to do a job unless it was expected that hands or eyes would be going anywhere near them?

The article also states that when the women arrived at London’s Dorchester Hotel, where the dinner and auction was taking place, they had to sign a disclaimer before they were allowed to work. The text of the disclaimer has not been made public. The women were not allowed to keep copies and – to my knowledge – Artista has not released a copy. But the disclaimer has been reported as a non-disclosure agreement, where the women were signing away the right to say what happened at the evening.

In addition, the programme for the evening contained a full-page advert containing a “gentlemen’s code”, which warned guests that staff should not be sexually harassed.

And the event host Jonny Gould – not the Jonny Gould who does the newspaper reviews for Sky News and who used to broadcast on Smooth Radio and Talk Radio – described the event as “the most un-PC event of the year.”

So, instructions about underwear, non-disclosure agreements, full-page warnings about harassment, and a description as “the most un-PC event of the year”, and you are “astonished” about the allegations because of the “calibre of guest.”

As I say, either Caroline Dandridge is a liar and cannot claim to be astonished at the allegations; or she is incompetent and did not carry out due diligence on the nature of event she recruited staff for.

In both cases, Bishop Bell’s supporters and Caroline Dandridge are using the same line: these are very nice men who wouldn’t do such a thing.

Archbishop Justin challenged this line in his response to the letter by the academics: “It is often suggested that what is being alleged could not have been true, because the person writing knew the alleged abuser and is absolutely certain that it was impossible for them to have done what is alleged,” He said.

“As with Peter Ball [the former Bishop of Lewes and then Gloucester who was imprisoned in October 2015 after admitting the abuse of 18 young men between 1977 and 1992] this sometimes turns out to be untrue, not through their own fault or deceit, but because abuse is often kept very secret. The experience of discovering feet of clay in more than one person I held in profound respect has been personally tragic.”

I was really encouraged to see Archbishop Justin hold his ground. In doing so, he was challenging one of the most pervasive rape myths in the UK today. I have seen countless rape and sexual assault trials where the man sat in the dock appears to be a nice individual, clean, suited, polite, well-spoken, supported by a girlfriend in the gallery – a million miles away from what a rapist is supposed to look like: a dirty old man, hanging around bushes, ready to pounce. And juries struggle to reconcile the image of the polite young man in the dock with their vision of what a rapist is supposed to look like.

Rapists and those who commit sexual violence come in all shapes and sizes; and from many different backgrounds.

Some of them are very nice people; some of them are known to be nasty.

Some of them come from respectable families; some come from broken homes.

Some of them are wealthy in very responsible jobs; some are in debt and unemployed.

Some of them are young; some of them are old.

Some of them arouse suspicion; some are very good at hiding it.

Some are lonely and sexually frustrated; some are happily married or in long-term relationships.

But time and time again, I hear the argument that “so and so couldn’t have done this because he’s such a nice person.”

It is a dangerous line: it stops victims from coming forward. It stops organisations passing on allegations to the authorities. It stops juries from convicting.

It has to be called out. Whenever and wherever we hear it, we must all challenge the line that “he is such a nice person, he wouldn’t do such a thing.”