Yesterday, I was shocked to hear an item on the lunchtime news. No, I was not just shocked. I was horrified. This was the case of Liam Allan. A 22-year old accused of rape, Mr Allan was today cleared of all charges. It was not the fact that he was cleared that troubles me, but because the police behaved as they did. He was cleared despite the fact that the case officer did not properly review evidence that absolved Mr Allan of any guilt.
He would have faced ten years in prison if found guilty, not because he actually raped the “victim” but because 40,000 texts on a disc in police possession were not properly checked.
This coincided with the publication (finally) of the Church Of England’s #Carlisle report. In 1995, a woman (known as ‘Carol’ to maintain her anonymity) accused the late George Bell, bishop of Chichester, of molesting her when she was a child.
The accusations were not investigated further, however, in 2013, she wrote to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to repeat the claims. He passed it on to the police and the Church paid £16,800 out of court and apologised. The Carlisle report confirms what many of us suspected, that the Church of England was far too quick to condemn Bell (who died in 1958) on the say so of questionable evidence.
These two events show a worrying trend in modern Britain to disregard those things which once guaranteed our liberty and delivered #justice. We should have learnt from the tragic case of Carl Sargeant. I hope that now we will because this is dangerous, not only for Liam Allan and George Bell but for each and every one of us.
Presumption of guilt
I wrote some time ago of the need to maintain a clear mind in regards to accusations of sexual assault in Westminster.
To that end, I try my best to personally not presume anyone’s guilt of serious crimes until it is proven beyond reasonable doubt in court. It is something that we all should do (it is hard when such things are presented as juicy gossip in the media), rather than pay lip service to it.
Mr Allan spent two years of his life fearing he would go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The evidence does not leave a scrap of doubt as to his innocence, amongst the 40,000 messages are those from his accuser begging him for sex. Without this crucial evidence being uncovered, Mr Allan’s fears would have been realised. The judge has called for an inquiry into the issue. Will it prove to be a disastrous mistake? Maybe, but it is a mistake that could have ruined his life, the rest of which he would spend with the label of ‘rapist’.
The word “mistake”, it seems to me, goes too far to absolve the police. No doubt some will blame government cuts and anything else they can think of to excuse them, but it should be taken as a given that every scrap of evidence (40,000 messages from her phone seems to be quite a large scrap), should be available to the court. This is now more important than ever. In a time when, in the words of Mr Allen’s mother, the “assumption is there is no smoke without fire”, our justice system must take up the slack. The sinister aspect is that this is in the context of Alison Saunders’s (the Director of Public Prosecutions) drive to convict more sexual criminals. That sounds all well and good, but it can never ever be at the expense of proper justice being done. Then again, she is the person who said that very few men accused of rape and cleared, were actually falsely accused. In other words, just because a court cannot prove you are guilty, you are guilty and we should all think you are. This is the presumption of guilt.
It is, as judge William Blackstone (a man much more suitable than Ms Saunders and her dangerous crusades) said, “better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”. That may sound harsh on genuine victims, but it is the only way that we can ensure that the innocent do not pay the price for crimes they did not commit.
It’s all well and good to want to make victims come forward by ensuring them they will be believed, but it has dangerous implications. Mr Allen’s accuser was not telling the truth. She was lying, he said, because he would not see her anymore. If we were talking of this hypothetically, I’d be castigated as a vile bully who wishes to oppress rape victims because I want to preserve my white male privilege or some other rubbish. But we are not. This is a real case with a real victim - and it was not the accuser. It is a difficult situation to bring people forward who were victims of rape, but the most that can be said is that they will be taken seriously and given every protection possible. Anymore is dangerous, as hard as that may sound.
To George Bell; He was the man who supported Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was one of the earliest to warn of the horrors of Nazism, supported those fleeing Hitler’s Germany and slammed the bombing of Dresden by the Allied forces. In other circumstances, he’d be considered a real-life hero. That was until a single accusation arose against him.
The diocese of Chichester jumped on it. We’ve all (sadly) heard it said that priests are paedophiles. Regardless of whether secular institutions have experienced it, the ignorant view of all churches is that they are nests of perverts. Well, they decided to strip his name from almost everything it graced and essentially desecrating his memorial. Why did they do this? Overcompensation. The diocese had been exposed to previous failings on abuse cases and failed to properly deal with them. Here came a big enough head (albeit one long since dead and unable to defend himself) to make up for it.
Thou Great Redeemer?
Rather than admit they behaved wrongly in destroying everything that reminded anyone of him, they dig a deeper hole and brought the rest of the Church of England into this. Now even the Archbishop of Canterbury has brought shame on his office by abandoning any pretence of seeing justice done. This is despite the fact that ‘Carol’s’ account is questionable and, in places, contradictory. But this was a long-dead target that should not have got much support.
It would be inappropriate to make a judgement on this case, Bishop Bell cannot defend himself so we will never see it go to court and go through the proper processes. That did not stop the CofE from paying compensation and apologising, and thereby proclaiming to the world that Bell was guilty. Maybe ‘Carol’ is telling the truth, maybe not.
If newspapers had done this, we would rightly say that it is wrong to try to convict people in the court of public opinion. Why is this any different? It is not, as the Bishop of Bath and Wells wrongly said, to be judged “on the balance of probabilities”. If it is to be judged properly then Bell would have to be alive and this would go to a criminal court, and thereby be subject to the more rigorous qualification of “beyond reasonable doubt”. That should be the way to destroy a man’s reputation, not to subject his family to the pain and humiliation of this sorry affair.
The Carlisle report set out the failings of the Church in this matter. Defending Bell is not an implicit belief that ‘Carol’ is not telling the truth. Her name does not need to be dragged through the mud, nor should it be. It is easy to suggest otherwise, particularly for opponents of this stance, but this is about the principle of the Presumption Of Innocence. It is not a comfortable thing to do, not only because of the tendency to see fire where there is smoke, but it is hard to see someone repeating a traumatic experience in front of a court of strangers. Even so, it is necessary to ensure that I, and you, and every single person in this country cannot be dragged off to prison on the word of another. This could (and should) have been dealt with so differently.
If the Church of England seeks forgiveness, it should remember that the first step is repentance. I won’t hold my breath.
The police say they can’t investigate crimes, they can’t search through evidence properly, a dead man is damned on the say so of one woman without so much as a cross-examination and the CPS is guided by an agenda more important than the presumption of innocence. British justice, eh?