TODAY, for the first time, the victim of George Bell has spoken about the sexual abuse she suffered as a five-year-old child at the hands of the wartime Bishop of Chichester.
Speaking exclusively to The Argus, she described how he repeatedly molested her over a period of four years while telling her that God loved her.
Her testimony brings new clarity to a story which has changed the world’s perception of one of the most revered Anglicans of the 20th century since news of a church payout was announced last October.
Motivated to speak by comments made in the press in defence of Bell’s legacy, she raises fresh questions over the failure of senior church officials to respond adequately to allegations of which they were first informed in 1995.
As the leading bishop in the diocese of Chichester, George Bell was head of the Anglican Church in Sussex for 29 years from 1929 until his death in 1958.
He was remembered as a patron of the arts and a courageous opponent of appeasement and Nazism who came close to being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.
But in October of last year the current Bishop, Martin Warner, released a shocking statement which admitted that the Church had paid a settlement to a victim over allegations of sexual abuse committed in the 1940s when the complainant was a young child.
The Argus can now reveal that the formerly revered prelate molested a young girl, a relative of a church employee, for a period of four years beginning when she was just five years old.
Under the pretence of reading her a story, he would take her to a private room, sit her on his lap and move his hands over her thighs before moving her underwear aside and interfering with her.
After struggling with feelings of guilt for decades, the survivor wrote to Bishop Eric Kemp in 1995 but his only action was to advise her to speak to a local vicar.
She told The Argus that the response knocked her back.
“When things started to be more open that’s when you feel you can say something. You thought about saying something for years but then you thought ‘no’. And then when you do, and not a lot’s done about it, you shut up again.”
She says today that she later wrote to the office of Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury.
Lord Williams told The Argus yesterday that he was certain he saw no such correspondence.
The victim only received a satisfactory response when she wrote in 2013 to the present Archbishop Justin Welby.
However a further 18 months passed before she received an out-of-court settlement of £15,000 and an apology.
In the text of his letter of apology, never before disclosed, Bishop Warner of Chichester said: “I recognise that the two years of waiting since [writing to the Archbishop in 2013] have been very difficult, and that at times you may have felt that people in the Church were hoping that you would go away.
"Please accept my reassurance that this has not been the case; there were many steps that needed to be taken in order to be able to respond as we have now done.”
MY STRONGEST MEMORY IS SEEING THIS FIGURE ALL IN BLACK STANDING ON A STAIR, WAITING
CAROL was a girl of five when she was introduced to Bishop George Bell for the first time.
Over the following four years, under the guise of reading her a bedtime story, he would go on to repeatedly molest and abuse this Chichester schoolgirl, all the while telling her that God loved her.
Carol (not her real name) comes from a large family so to relieve the pressure on her mother, a relative who worked for the church would often take the little girl with her when she went to work at the Bishop’s Palace.
Speaking about her ordeal for the first time, exclusively to The Argus, Carol said: “I went for weekends and school holidays, usually for two or three days at a time, sometimes a week.
“He used to say to her, ‘well I’ll take Carol and I’ll read her a story while you get on with your work’.”
Carol explained that the abuse took place frequently.
“It was whenever he got a chance to take me off on my own.
“My strongest memory is seeing this figure all in black, standing on a stair, waiting.
“He used to wear a black tunic thing that came down to his knees and long black leggings, that’s what I can remember.
“They might have been trousers. They looked like leggings to me.
“If you go into the Bishop’s kitchen there’s a wooden stair that comes down and he used to wait on there, half way down it.
"And then he’d go, ‘Oh Elsie, I’ll take Carol and read her a story.’”
“He used to take me off down this long corridor and there was a big room at the end and he used to take me in there.
“There were books all around the room. And then he’d shut the door.”
The 65-year-old man, who had once been tipped to become Britain’s post-war Archbishop of Canterbury, sat five-year-old Carol on his knee.
She said: “He did start reading a story, to start with, and then he’d start wriggling about a bit with me on his lap.
“He started wriggling and then he started touching me, between my legs.”
Bell never kissed her or removed any of her clothes or his own. But she described how his hands would become more and more invasive.
“It started off with a bit of touching.”
She said there was no undressing but he would pull her knickers aside to interfere with her.
This did not take place every time she visited the 12th century cathedral but for four years whenever the bishop got Carol alone to "read her a story", she was abused.
“It’s almost like he was waiting just to get me there,” she said.
Carol told the relative with whom she was staying but the testimony of a primary-school girl against one of the world’s most revered churchmen carried little weight in the late 1940s, even within a family.
She said: “The first occasion, I raised it with her. But back then, you were told ‘Shhh, you don’t say that, that’s not nice, don’t tell fibs’. Back in them days everything was swept under the carpet.”
Although Carol remembers the abuse clearly, she acknowledged that after more than 60 years, some things are not as easy to recall.
“I don’t know how I felt when she told me to go with him. Back then you did what you were told, so ‘you go with the bishop’ and you just trotted off, especially once you’ve mentioned it once and been told not to tell lies.”
And the bishop, sitting in his black robes of office with the child on his knee, had told young Carol not to tell anyone what happened between them.
“He said it was our little secret, because God loved me.”
When Carol was nine, her father’s job took the family away from the area and she never saw that room, or Bell, again.
She got married in her teens and raised a family.
Her roots are in this area but she prefers to stay away from Chichester.
“I don’t like looking at the cathedral,” she said. "We keep moving, because I can’t stand it. I’ll come back here for a while but then we moved away.
“And of course, the cathedral dominates Chichester no matter where you go.”
For decades she tried to put her childhood abuse out of her mind but it cast a heavy shadow.
She said: “It’s something that lives with you for the rest of your life. It never goes away.
“You can push it, for a while, and then something, you either read in the paper or see on the television, and it comes back again.”
Carol paused at this point, and wiped her eyes. “Sorry,” she said, “bit silly at my age.”
She added: “The more you talk about it, it just brings it all back again.”
She said that she believes that lifelong feelings of depression and alienation can be traced to what happened to her.
“I’ve had nerve problems and I often get a bit depressed. I was a bit of a loner as a kid.
“I never mixed well with other children, I’ve always felt like I was the odd one out.”
It affected her behaviour towards her own family, too.
“I was so protective of my daughters, I didn’t want them to go out.
“They went out, but I’d sit up, even when they were teenagers, I wouldn’t go to bed. My sons too. I sat up and waited for them to come home because I was worried that something might happen,” she said.
“And they used to say, ‘oh don’t be daft Mum, we’re all right, we can look after ourselves,’ and I’d think ‘no you can’t’.”
After more than 40 years, in a different time, Carol wrote a letter to the then-Bishop of Chichester, Eric Kemp.
She said that – like many sexual abuse survivors – she had struggled for years with the sense that perhaps she was partly responsible or had done something to encourage the abusive behaviour.
But in 1995, she was spurred into action.
“There was something in the paper. About somebody being molested,” she said.
“And I thought, ‘you know, it’s not our fault’. And that’s when I wrote. But I got very little sympathy.”
In fact, Kemp took no action except to offer Carol pastoral support from another churchman.
She said: “I got a letter back telling me to go and see a vicar in Whyke and he was moving away anyway.
"And I didn’t really want to talk to another vicar.
"It made me feel, ‘what’s the point?'.
"All he’s doing is sending me to a vicar who’s going away.
“I’d already read that he was due to be moved on.
"So it was a case of me talking to somebody that wasn’t going to be there for long anyway.”
Carol never spoke to the vicar.
“I know it wasn’t my fault,” she said, “but for years you think it’s your fault.
“And then when things started to be more open, if you know what I mean, that’s when you feel you can say something.
“You thought about saying something for years, but then you thought, ‘no’.
“And then when you do, and not a lot’s done about it, you shut up again.”
Carol does not have a copy of that correspondence from 20 years ago but in his letter of apology dated September 2015, current Bishop of Chichester Martin Warner makes reference to it.
His letter states: “I understand that in 1995 you approached Eric Kemp, the Bishop of Chichester at the time, giving a clear and unambiguous account of your memories.”
It continues: “No one reading that letter could have been in any doubt that you were referring to serious sexual abuse by a senior figure in the Church of England.”
Carol explained that when she steeled herself to raise the issue again in around 2010, she decided to go to the very top of the Church of England.
“The first time I raised it this time around, I didn’t write to [Chichester], because I never got much satisfaction then, so I wrote to the Archbishop before this one and all I got was a “sorry this happened”, that was it and that was in an email.”
Carol no longer has a copy of that email correspondence with Lambeth Palace, the headquarters of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who at that time was Dr Rowan Williams.
The Church of England’s public statements on the case have
made no reference to his having been involved in, or aware of, the case.
It was Rowan Williams who, in 2008, dedicated to George Bell the property formerly known as 4, Canon Lane, in the grounds of the cathedral.
The “George Bell House” plaque continues to adorn the wall by the front door, despite a Church statement in October promising to rename the house “shortly”.
Yesterday Lord Williams told The Argus that he had no recollection of such an email, saying “I am quite certain that I saw nothing on this matter”.
Carol finally felt that she received a proper hearing when she wrote to the current Archbishop, Justin Welby, in 2013 shortly after his investiture.
He contacted the cathedral and, she said, “told them to get it sorted".
The cathedral paid for Carol to have counselling – which included a return to the scene of her abuse, which she hated – and appointed an intermediary.
Carol understands that this woman acted as an "independent go-between" and it was she who put Carol in touch with Tracey Emmott, of Emmott Snell solicitors, who subsequently won compensation from the Church.
A year and a half elapsed between Carol contacting Justin Welby and receiving compensation and a letter of apology from Martin Warner, the Bishop of Chichester.
She said of the letter: “That’s what I wanted mostly, a ‘sorry’ that it happened.”
During this period her letter was passed on to the police, who interviewed her at home and told her that had Bell been alive today (he died in 1958), he would have been arrested.
In the Church statement on the matter, dated October 22 of last year, Bishop Warner said: “Following a meeting between the survivor and Sussex police in 2013, it was confirmed by the police that the information obtained from their enquiries would have justified, had he still been alive, Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview on suspicion of serious sexual offences, followed by release on bail, further enquiries and the subsequent submission of a police report to the CPS.”
Carol said she never considered going directly to the police herself.
Of the £15,000 she received from the Church of England in a civil settlement last September, she said: “I just wanted somebody to recognise what had happened to me.
“I mean the compensation, I’ve not spent much of it.
“I’ve given some to my granddaughter to help with expenses and I’ve bought myself a tumble dryer.
“Is £15,000 appropriate? I don’t know what’s appropriate for having your life messed up.”
The case, the reputation of the accused, the anonymity of the accuser and the secrecy surrounding the allegations and evidence have caused a national re-evaluation of Bell’s legacy and, in some quarters, heated debate.
Bishop Luffa Church of England School in Chichester has changed the name of one of its school houses from “Bell House” and Bishop Bell School in Eastbourne last month announced it will change its name to St Catherine’s.
The Church has said it will rename George Bell House but in the four months since Bishop Warner’s letter of apology to Carol has not yet done so
And Chichester Cathedral briefly placed a “safeguarding notice” in front of a monument to Bell inside the building but removed the notice last month.
Meanwhile respected Establishment commentators have questioned the Church’s handling of the issue and picked apart the statement of October 22.
Senior London Judge Alan Pardoe QC, writing in The Church Times, said the statement was “appallingly unfair to the reputation of George Bell” whom he called “an immensely courageous… bishop, a tremendous figure in the Church and one whose posthumous reputation has stood very high.”
Journalist Peter Hitchens warned in The Argus against condemning Bell in the absence of due process. He wrote in his Mail on Sunday blog: “I very much hope that [Alan Pardoe’s] thoughtful and powerful intervention will cause some heart-searching among those who have so far been willing to let Bishop Bell’s reputation suffer without any sort of fair trial.”
Opinion and editorial pieces in The Times and The Telegraph have also asked questions, including whether Bell is now being made an “un-person” in Chichester following institutional name changes.
Carol said that it was comments in response to the Church’s announcement which spurred her to take up this newspaper’s offer, made through her solicitor, to tell her side of the story.
She said: “Some of the remarks I’ve read made me very upset.
“Because he did good things, they automatically assume that he couldn’t do anything wrong, which was rather hurtful because a lot of men who have done good things have also done very evil things.
“He might be a man of peace but that doesn’t take away the fact of what he did to me.”
Carol had taken only a couple of moments to master her emotions while speaking for well over an hour about extremely traumatic childhood memories.
But she became visibly upset and looked deeply hurt as she reflected on the voices speaking in support of George Bell’s legacy.
“A lot of them probably weren’t even around at the time. And they don’t know what it’s like.
“They don’t know how I feel. If it happened to them, how would they feel?” she said.
She does not believe the impossibility of a trial should prevent her from speaking out or provoke so many to defend the bishop.
“It’s almost like they’re saying I should have kept my mouth shut and not said anything. Just do that and his good name goes on, you understand?
“But what they’re saying is because he couldn’t go to court to stand trial, why are we bothering?
“I don’t know,” she finished resignedly, and paused again to dry her cheeks.
Some have questioned whether such a revered man’s name should have been dragged through the mud in the absence of evidence and have asked for proof of the abuse.
Carol’s reply is simple: “Then why did the Church pay me? They must have believed me, I assume.”
She said the detective inspector she spoke to also said he believed her account.
She added: “People didn’t believe about Jimmy Savile, I mean who’d have thought?
“Even I didn’t really believe it to start with. Until you started to read what he’d done. And he did a lot of good.”
This last reflection is particularly illuminating.
Because despite the abuse, the lifelong trauma, the years of staying away from her home city and the shadow of its cathedral, and being repeatedly rebuffed or ignored by the Church, Carol acknowledges that the man who stole her innocence is a complex figure.
With a graciousness few could muster under the circumstances, she said: “I’m not saying that he didn’t do good.
“All I’m saying is what he did to me wasn’t good. He still did good things elsewhere. But I was his weakness.”
Reflecting on his legacy, she added: “It’s a hard one. Because he did some good. But to me he did harm.
“And sometimes I think the Church likes to sweep those kind of things under the table.”
She fears that recent noises from the Church signal a return to opaque form.
She is upset that the monument to George Bell – which reads “A true pastor, poet, and patron of the arts, champion of the oppressed and tireless worker for Christian unity” – once again stands unadorned in the centre of the cathedral without any notice referencing her case.
She said: “Well it’s a case of ‘everything will be forgotten soon’, then.”
And she suggested the Church had dragged its feet since September over the renaming of George Bell House because “they think it’ll all die down”.
She has been pleased by the name changes that have already already taken place but has no great hopes for the complete removal of Bell’s legacy from church property.
“I think they should rename the house, but they’re not going to at this point, are they, I don’t think.”
The last time Carol returned to the cathedral where she was abused in the 1940s and early 1950s was when her Church-sponsored counsellor took her back there two years ago.
Visibly upset again, Carol explained: “The lady who was giving me counselling, actually took me to the Bishop’s kitchen.“
The Cathedral had some sort of pottery exhibition on there, and she said ‘we’ll go, and see how you feel’.
“Well I got in there, and I said ‘Can we leave now?’ We had to leave.”
Carol’s voice only broke once in the course of a three hour interview, when she recalled how it felt to stand back in that room, at the foot of those stairs.
Hoarsely, slowly, she said: “It was horrible. You start to feel all jelly inside. It’s not nice, believe me.”
Perhaps, having bravely chosen to break the silence to which she was entitled, Carol has helped ensure that she will not have to revisit that Cathedral kitchen - in her mind or in person - ever again.
- Where necessary, names have been changed to protect the identity of the victim.
HOW MAN OF GOD FELL FROM GRACE
UNTIL last October, few figures in the Anglican Communion were held in higher regard than George Kennedy Bell.
The man who sat at the head of the Church in Sussex for nearly 30 years had been revered worldwide in the 58 years since his death.
His name was synonymous with peace, principle and patronage of the arts.
He befriended Hitler’s would-be assassin Dietrich Bonhoeffer, played host to Mahatma Gandhi in the teeth of fierce opposition to Indian independence and helped commission plays by T S Elliot.
It is said that his principled and unpopular stand against the area bombing of Dresden cost him elevation to the Archbishopric of Canterbury.
Former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, who lives in Sussex, wrote in January that “Bell was our nearest thing to a saint since St Richard of Chichester (died 1253).”
Mr Moore was writing in response to the shocking statement issued by current Bishop of Chichester, Martin Warner, on October 22 ,2015.
That statement began: “The Bishop of Chichester has issued a formal apology following the settlement of a legal civil claim regarding sexual abuse against the Right Reverend George Bell.”
In the aftermath of the news, schools and institutions dedicated to Bell have rushed to change their names but the Church has yet to formally rename George Bell House, a lodging house adjacent to the Cathedral.
Bell’s fall from grace prompted a considerable backlash in print from those who believed his legacy had been completely abandoned by the Church.
Mr Moore added in his article: “If Bishop Bell had been a Nazi war criminal, the charges against him would have had to reach a far higher standard of proof than those by which the Church of England has destroyed him.”
SHE WAITED YEARS FOR AN APOLOGY
THE woman who shared her story with me on Monday spoke out of a feeling of deep injustice.
She does not walk easily now but her voice is strong and her recollections are extremely clear.
It is not easy for a woman in her 70s seventies to speak candidly to a man in his 30s about childhood sexual abuse thirties and her expression was frequently contorted with distaste as she explained what Bishop Bell did to her when she was five.
But this humble and genuine woman, who lives for her large family, has been deeply hurt by articles defending a man whose perversions tarnished her whole life.
She tried hard not to be overwhelmed by emotion as she spoke but as her voice caught in her throat, it was clear how wounded she feels.
She waited decades for the Church to say sorry and now that apology has whipped up sympathy for her abuser.
When she reached into her handbag to take out the letter of apology, written on heavy embossed Church stationery, I wondered momentarily whether she keeps it close to her all the time.