PETER HITCHENS: My defence of former Bishop of Chichester George Bell

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After the Diocese of Chichester apologised to the victim of child sexual abuse by the late Bishop George Bell, Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens defends the man he has long admired:

Can a man be great and distinguished one day, and disgraced and notorious the next?

Of course it is possible.

But should this have happened to the late Bishop of Chichester?

George Bell is fast becoming an unperson in the city where he was revered, his name expunged where once it was honoured.

As one of many in Britain and the rest of the world who has long admired George Bell’s undisputed personal courage and principle, I find this distressing.

I spent some formative years in Chichester, just after George Bell’s death, living in Brandy Hole Lane and attending (as a non-choirboy) the Prebendal School.

In a long career, during which I have lived and travelled much in ugly, totalitarian and Godless parts of the world, I have always carried those early memories of a very gentle and deep English beauty, of landscape, architecture, music and worship, inside me.

I also remember the reverence and love with which George Bell’s name was mentioned in the cathedral precincts.

And I feel there is something deeply un-English about the way in which his reputation has been treated by the church of which he was once such a distinguished leader.

He has indeed been accused of a terrible thing. But he has not been tried or convicted of it, and cannot be.

As he left no descendants, it is left to us to defend the ancient English principle that we are presumed innocent until proven guilty after a fair trial before an impartial jury, no matter how foul the crime alleged against us.

In fact, the more serious the accusation (and this charge is undoubtedly extremely serious), the more essential this is. I am not alone in this concern.

An article in the Church of England newspaper has said ‘He is effectively being tried and convicted by the Church of England with little thought for proper justice and due process’.

A group of former Chichester choirboys, some of whom are now distinguished musicians and knew the bishop when he was alive, have written to The Times to say they fear he has been ‘smeared to suit a public relations need’.

They recall him as ‘an upright entirely moral and devout figure who meant a great deal to us as children’.

Of course, if the case against him is proven beyond reasonable doubt, all these defences count for nothing. But has it been?

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