If a saintly man can be branded a sex abuser, none of us is safe

The Mail on Sunday - - Comment - Peter Hitchens Read Peter’s blog at hitchens­blog.mailon­sun­day.co.uk and fol­low him on Twit­ter @clarkem­icah

IF WE won’t fight in­jus­tice wher­ever we see it, t hen we are not safe from suf­fer­ing in­jus­tice our­selves. If a man’s rep­u­ta­tion can be de­stroyed in an af­ter­noon by a se­cret kan­ga­roo court, then we too can one day be pro­pelled into a pit of ev­er­last­ing shame by the same process.

If it can hap­pen to any­one, it can hap­pen to you. And it does hap­pen. Ac­cu­sa­tions of long- ago sex­ual crime have be­come a sort of in­dus­try in this coun­try. Peo­ple are so hor­ri­fied by them that they al­most al­ways be­lieve them.

Be­cause the crime is so foul, we stop think­ing. To their shame, po­lice and pros­e­cu­tors use our hor­ror to get easy con­vic­tions, when they must know that their cases are weak. The less ac­tual ev­i­dence they have, the more they stress the dis­gust­ing na­ture of the al­leged crime. And they for­get to re­mind us that it is al­leged, not proved.

Equally shame­fully, judges do not stop these tri­als and ju­ries leave their brains at the door. They con­vict not be­cause they are sure the case has been proved be­yond rea­son­able doubt, but be­cause they are an­gry and re­volted.

I am mis­er­ably sure there are dis­turb­ing num­bers of peo­ple in British pris­ons now, pros­e­cuted on such charges, who are in­no­cent of the ac­cu­sa­tions against them. It is our fault, be­cause we have for­got­ten what jus­tice is sup­posed to be like, and that, if we do not guard it in our hearts, it will per­ish in the coun­try.

THIS is why I have spent a shock­ingly large part of my l i fe i n the past two years try­ing to res­cue the rep­u­ta­tion of a dead bishop, Ge­orge Bell of Chich­ester. I had known of him for many years and thought him a man of saintly courage. I had also spent a very sunny part of an ex­traor­di­nar­ily happy child­hood in and around Chich­ester. I learned to be an English­man, in many ways, in that beau­ti­ful, an­cient city. Even so, when the Church of Eng­land pub­licly de­nounced him as a child abuser, I was as­ton­ished by the in­stinc­tive, molten fury that I then ex­pe­ri­enced. This was not just an opin­ion. It kept me awake at night.

For­tu­nately, I found al­lies who felt the same. At first slowly and then with gath­er­ing strength and con­fi­dence, we as­sem­bled the ev­i­dence which showed that grave wrong had been done. The Church of Eng­land, whose se­nior fig­ures are as­ton­ish­ingly unim­pres­sive and tricky, tried to smear us with false claims that we had at­tacked the com­plainant. But they failed, and at last grudg­ingly agreed to re­view the case.

When the re­view told them that they had run an in­com­pe­tent, mis­er­able kan­ga­roo court and that they had con­demned a great man on ev­i­dence too weak to hang a ham­ster, they sat sulk­ily on that re­port for nearly ten weeks, un­til they were jeered into re­leas­ing it.

Even then, when it came out on Fri­day, a Church which sup­pos­edly be­lieves in pen­i­tence was still wrig­gling like a bas­ket of em­bar­rassed eels. The dis­tin­guished and im­par­tial lawyer who con­ducted the re­view, Lord Carlile QC, made it quite plain that no court would have found Ge­orge Bell guilty on the ev­i­dence (in­deed, the Crown Pros­e­cu­tion Ser­vice would not even have brought it to court).

He con­cluded the Church had hung one of its great­est fig­ures ‘out to dry’. He even said ‘if I had been pros­e­cut­ing this case, I would have lost it’, which is as near as such a per­son could come to say­ing Ge­orge Bell is in­no­cent.

And what of the Church, sup­pos­edly the guardian of moral good? The Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury petu­lantly per­sisted in claim­ing, de­spite all the ev­i­dence, that there was still a ‘cloud’ over Ge­orge Bell’s name. Lord Carlile re­marked that this state­ment was ‘less than fully adroit’, which is QC- speak for some­thing much ruder.

I will go fur­ther. Arch­bishop Welby had a chance to stand for moral courage against the easy, pop­u­lar thing. And he did the easy, pop­u­lar thing. Ge­orge Bell, fac­ing much sterner tests in much tougher times, re­peat­edly chose moral courage over pop­u­lar­ity. And that is why Justin Welby is not fit to lace up Ge­orge Bell’s shoes, and why his pre­ten­sions to be a moral leader of this coun­try are taken less and less se­ri­ously by think­ing peo­ple.

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