An abridged, dramatised reading of T S Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral will take place in Chichester as part of the campaign to clear the name of the city’s wartime Bishop Bell, a man accused last year of child abuse more than half a century after his death (October 2, 6.30pm, The Friends’ Meeting House, Priory Road, free admission).
Taking part will be Mail on Sunday columnist and author Peter Hitchens, a key figure in efforts to argue nothing has ever been proved against Bell: “The Church of England gave George Bell a kangaroo court. It was about as marsupial as it could be.” As Peter says, it is documented that Bell would always travel third class by train; and that travelling on the little branch lines, there would be times when he would have to travel without a ticket. Without fail, he would then get his secretary to find out what he owed and send off a cheque: “Does a man who is so open and honest in such small things fit with a man who was supposed to have led a life of predatory child abuse? I don’t think so.”
Peter believes the campaign has made significant progress: “It has allowed what was initially an allegation to become an allegation again rather than being accepted as undisputed truth, which the church did wrongly to begin with.”
Peter’s argument is that the church and some of the media ignored “the presumption of innocence which is not just a principle in law but a principle in life. The statement that they put out never at any stage says George Bell is guilty, but somehow or other three national newspapers and the BBC all came to the conclusion that he was guilty.”
Peter, who 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, insisted he is not afraid of the truth: “If it is true, then no harm will have been done by insisting on the presumption of innocence. If it is not true, then a great deal of harm will have been done.
“But I find it hard to see how it could be proved conclusively. It is so long ago. We only have a witness from one side of the alleged events. The accused person is not there to defend himself. One hopes for some sort of event that might bring it about but I doubt it. All I have ever wanted to stress is that it is an allegation rather than something proven.
“I have no doubt that the reason they threw George Bell under the bus was to make themselves appear tough and decisive which is the opposite to how they have appeared. Their mistake was to think that nobody cared about George Bell any more. I have been in touch with a huge number of people who care very much.”
Peter says he himself reluctantly came to the conclusion, as Bell did during the war, that area bombing of Germany was wrong: “There was one just man who was prepared to stand up and say it was wrong, and that is an important salve to our national conscience for something we cannot feel terribly proud about.”
And that has been thrown away: “This was a solitary uncorroborated allegation.”
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