Liam Allan was studying criminology at Greenwich University—but after he started, a woman with whom he had had a sexual relationship accused him of repeatedly raping her and sexually assaulting her. He was on bail for two years, and in court for three days, before the case against him collapsed and was dismissed. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had failed to disclose a disk containing information about phone records, either to the defence team or to their own prosecution barrister, in order to save money in pursuing the case. When the judge ordered the disclosure, the disk turned out to hold 40,000 messages in which the woman had repeatedly pestered Liam Allan, talked of boasting to her friends about their sexual relationship, and discussed her fantasies of being raped and having violent sex.
Not surprisingly, Allan has been devastated by the process.
I can’t explain the mental torture of the past two years. I feel betrayed by the system which I had believed would do the right thing — the system I want to work in.
Even the prosecuting barrister, Jerry Hayes, has been shocked.
I would like to apologise to Liam Allan. There was a terrible failure in disclosure which was inexcusable. There could have been a very serious miscarriage of justice, which could have led to a very significant period of imprisonment and life on the sex offenders register. It appears the [police] officer in the case has not reviewed the disk, which is quite appalling.
In his interview with the BBC, Hayes attributed the failure to financial pressures, and believed that a further reduction in Government funding would make such problems worse in the future. But he fails to mention the wider issue in this case—the court of public opinion. Liam Allan’s mother highlighted this:
In the current climate, in these sorts of cases, you are guilty until you can prove you are innocent. The assumption is there is no smoke without fire.
This is the climate which has seen high profile figures including Cliff Richard, Paul Gambaccini, Leon Britton and Ted Heath accused, the last two posthumously, without the following of proper process. Cliff Richard testifies to the personal impact:
The TV circus took away from me all hope of ever being what I had been before, a confident and respected artist, and an ambassador for Great Britain. Had I not been ‘named’ worldwide I feel I would still have been able to look people in the eye and not feel afraid that they might be thinking that there is ‘no smoke without fire’.
The real and serious problem here is the low level of convictions in rape cases, and the long history of the police failing to take seriously allegations that have been made by victims. There is now a right concern to redress this—but instead of doing so by ensuring proper process it follows, in all these cases the failed process has just been tilted in another direction. Justice is not like a see-saw, where you can give more justice to one party by giving less to another—but that appears to be the way these cases have been handled.
And it appears not only to be the way that the case of George Bell has been handled—but continues to be handled despite a devastating report into the case by Lord Carlile. Bell was a widely respected Bishop of Chichester in the middle of the last century, and made a courageous moral stand against the way that the Second World War was being prosecuted.
Bell was seen as a champion of the underdog. He helped organise the kindertransport rescue of Jewish children from the Nazis, and later controversially criticised the RAF bombing of German civilians during the second world war. He described the killing of women and children as “barbarian” and a crime against humanity, asking: “How can the war cabinet fail to see that this progressive devastation of cities is threatening the roots of civilisation?” His comments – deeply unpopular in a country at war – were widely thought to have cost him the job of archbishop of Canterbury when it twice became vacant in the 1940s. But in some quarters, his outspokenness made him a hero.
But in 1996, nearly forty years after his death, he was accused by ‘Carol’ of sexually abusing her when she was a child, more than 60 years previously. The Church of England made a public apology, and awarded ‘Carol’ £16,800 in compensation. It was claimed that there had been a thorough process of investigation, but the Carlile report puts paid to that claim. Though the Carlile report did not itself look at the evidence, only the process (since its commissioning specifically excluded that), many who knew the situation had previously claimed that ‘Carol”s testimony was very easily proven to be wrong (for example, she appears to have incorrectly described the building where she claimed the abuse had taken place).
But what is even more worrying is the comments made both by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as Peter Hancock, the bishop of Bath and Wells who now carries the Church’s brief in this area (and, by all accounts, has been doing a good job of a nearly impossible task). After acknowledging the serious failures of process, and accepting most of Lord Carlile’s recommendations, the official statement offered this qualification:
Lord Carlile states that ‘where as in this case the settlement is without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision” but respectfully, we differ from that judgement. The Church is committed to transparency. We would look at each case on its merits but generally would seek to avoid confidentiality clauses.
Justin Welby reiterated this:
Bishop George Bell is one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century. The decision to publish his name was taken with immense reluctance, and all involved recognised the deep tragedy involved. However we have to differ from Lord Carlile’s point that ‘where as in this case the settlement is without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision”. The C of E is committed to transparency and therefore we would take a different approach.
In an interview on Radio 4 on Saturday morning, Lord Carlile said he was ‘perplexed’ by this response.
The implication of what he said is everybody accused should have their name made public, and that is just not acceptable.
Archbishop Welby is a brave man and I know, from conversations with him, that he is deeply anguished both by child abuse and by false accusations of child abuse. He tries harder than most princes of the Church to get alongside those who suffer.
Yet this is what he said yesterday. After acknowledging the failure of Church procedures, the Archbishop spoke of Bell’s “great achievement” as a defender of the persecuted and added: ‘We realise that a significant cloud is left over his name … 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 the whole life should be kept in mind.”
I’m afraid this is a shocking answer. The Archbishop must know that what people now think about the accusations depends very much on him. His own report tells him they were believed on grossly inadequate grounds. Does he cling to that belief or not? He invites us to balance the good and evil deeds of men; but there is no balance here. The good Bell did is proved. The evil is an uncorroborated accusation believed by the religious authorities because it makes their life easier. We have been here before – in the life of Jesus, and in the reason for his unjust death.
It seems that, instead of seeking justice and truth, the Church in this case is still seeking to be acquitted in the court of public opinion. There is good reason for this; it is not many months since the damning report of Dame Moira Gibb on the mishandling of the case of Peter Ball, another bishop accused of sexual abuse. The report is devastating, particular in relation to the action of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who repeatedly refused to act on accusations made against Ball, and warnings not only from other bishops but even, at one point, by his own chaplain. But justice is not like a see-saw, where you can give more justice to one party by giving less to another. Correcting the terrible errors in the case of Peter Ball cannot be achieved by leaning on the see-saw of George Bell in the other direction.
Apart from the specific case of Bell, and the Church’s reputation in handling this, the see-saw approach has two important practical implications. The first is for clergy who are subject to complaint under the Clergy Discipline Measure. It is very difficult to know how this is being used, since the process is confidential—if, for example, I had been subject to a complaint under CDM earlier this year, I would not be at liberty to disclose this, even if the claim had been dismissed without any qualification. And I am not sure whether anyone is monitoring how this process is being used, or how often, or what the outcomes are. But I can tell you that many clergy are already aware of how vulnerable they are in a climate of ‘no smoke without fire’, and in that context the idea that the Church is committed to ‘transparency’ in the unjust handling of George Bell’s reputation is, frankly, terrifying. This only compounds the major procedural flaw already present in the CDM process—that the diocesan bishop is the one who conducts the review, thus removing the only formal line of oversight and pastoral support for clergy at the very time that they need it. (This flaw was highlighted in Synod when the process was being debated, but the concern was brushed aside.)
Secondly, the whole question of supporting those who have survived sexual abuse is due to be debated at General Synod next February. I am not at all confident that, in this continuing climate, we are going to be able to have the discussion we need to. The focus will rightly be on victims, and the devastating impact of abuse on them. In the light of that, the danger is that any consideration of justice, the careful use of language, and due process in seeking both justice and truth, will be marginalised as an attempt to protect abusers. If that is the direction the discussion takes, then the Church will leave itself open to another Carlile moment, and neither victims nor the falsely accused will be served well.
Jesus once said ‘Whoever wants to save his soul will lose it’ (Mark 8.35), and that appears to have been true as the Church has sought, by see-saw, to save its reputation in the court of public appeal.
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