What the Bishop Bell Case Reveals about Our #MeToo Moment

A vendor sells #MeToo badges at a march for survivors of sexual assault in Los Angeles, California (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
An uncomfortable truth is that false accusations can and do happen.

In a tense exchange earlier this month between Dustin Hoffman and John Oliver, the HBO talk-show host said something remarkable. Responding to Oliver’s set of questions about claims of harassment against the actor, Hoffman pointed out that Oliver seemed not to be keeping “an open mind” but instead appeared to believe whatever he read in the press. To which Oliver replied about one claimant in particular, “I believe what she wrote, yes. Because there’s no point in her lying.”  It was a fascinating exchange which unwittingly illustrated a problem that is roiling through every aspect of our societies, with no signs of abatement.

Any reasonable person not engaged in mob justice should be able to imagine a number of reasons that someone might falsely make an accusation against someone else. These range from the accidental (false or mistaken identification) to the deliberate (avarice, revenge). It is no more the case that everybody who makes an allegation against somebody else must be telling the truth than it is that they must be lying. A small but important case from the United Kingdom seems capable of shedding some caution on the furor occurring everywhere.

It relates to the former Bishop of Chichester, George Bell, a much-admired clergyman who died in 1958. Two years ago — in 2015 — an allegation of child abuse by the bishop was made public. The accuser (who remains anonymous) alleged that Bell repeatedly abused her more than six decades ago. No other similar charges have been made.

What was remarkable was not just the allegation, but the way in which it was reported. In Britain, the story was splashed across many of the national and local newspapers and prominently relayed on the BBC. It was given fuel by the Sussex Police, who (ever-keen on pursuing people who died decades ago) issued a statement stating the charges and editorializing that “the information obtained from our enquiries would have justified, had he still been alive, Bishop Bell’s arrest and interview under caution, on suspicion of sexual offences.”

Even more surprising was that the institution to which Bishop Bell had dedicated his life — the Church of England — also appeared to accept that the bishop had been guilty of the terrible crime of which he had been anonymously, posthumously accused. Despite a number of Bell’s living associates protesting that the claims could not be true, and a number of inconsistencies in the accuser’s own account, the Church said that it had “found no reason to doubt” the claims and made a financial offer to the accuser. No defense of the accused was heard. None of the evidence contradicting her testimony appears to have been sought out. While the accuser remained anonymous, the reputation of the man she had accused looked like it would be posthumously destroyed for all time.

And there the whole thing might have lain had a couple of journalists not reared up in horror at this one-sided trial of the dead. Peter Hitchens of the Mail on Sunday led the charge, along with Charles Moore (of the Telegraph and Spectator) as well as a few others. Thanks to their efforts, the tables slowly began to turn. Last year the police grudgingly apologized to the bishop’s one surviving niece. Gradually other aspects of the story came to light. Hitchens and Moore continued to use the platforms they had to shame the Church into rethinking its verdict. Soon there were so many questions about the Church’s behavior in the wake of the accusations that the Church commissioned an independent report from Lord Carlile of Berriew, one of the country’s leading legal minds. The inquiry concluded some months ago, and the fact that the Church sat on the report for such a long while gave some hint of the damning contents which were finally published last week.

The independent report into the church’s handling of the affair found that the church had “rushed to judgement . . . without sufficient investigations’ and concluded that:

The church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case. In other words, there was a rush to judgment: the church, feeling it should be both supportive of the complainant and transparent in its dealings, failed to engage in a process which would also give proper consideration to the rights of the bishop. Such rights should not be treated as having been extinguished on death.

The Church, as led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, has been shamefully grudging about accepting the deep institutional and procedural criticisms listed in the report.  Last Sunday, Peter Hitchens — whose campaign in defense of Bell has been completely vindicated by the Carlile report — restated why he thought this battle so important. Either the truth matters, or it does not. And if it matters, then unsubstantiated allegations should not be accepted for simple short-term personal or institutional convenience. As Hitchens’s headline put it, “If a saintly man can be branded a sex abuser, none of us is safe.”

Which brings me back to the undoubtedly less saintly figures currently being accused of a variety of crimes in Hollywood and beyond. When people and institutions are riding strong, they benefit from a presumption of innocence. When they are riding weak, or on the way down, almost any allegation can be accepted as true. The Church of England, understandably feeling itself in a position of weakness, neglected to follow the normal procedures that should be in place to ascertain the truth. Instead, it carried out what was little more than a show trial of a dead man. The effects on the amount of reciprocal loyalty some of its followers feel towards it will take a small but sizeable hit.

The most surprising aspect of 2017 has been the fact that Hollywood this year joined the Church of England in the ranks of institutions for which nobody now feels inclined to believe professions of innocence. Like most corrections to an earlier unquestioning attitude, the Church’s response to the Bell accusations was an overcorrection, one which can happen in other institutions, too. Avoiding that happening starts with recognizing that there are reasons why some people tell untruths, just as there are reasons why some people are brave enough to find out — and tell — the truth.


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