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Press watchdog clears weekly over Bishop sex abuse claims

Bishop BellA claim that newspapers should not be allowed to report on the sexual abuse of children by a long-dead bishop has been rejected by the press watchdog.

Last year the Bishop of Chichester issued a former apology following the settlement of a civil claim against one of his predecessors, George Bell, who was alleged to have abused a young woman while leading the Diocese.

Marilyn Billingham wrote to the Independent Press Standards Organisation over the Chichester Observer’s coverage of the story, arguing that the press should only report historic allegations as fact in circumstances where a court has found this to be the case.

But IPSO rejected the complaint, saying the newspaper had been entitled to rely on the information provided by the Church in an official press release.

The Observer had reported Bell, pictured above left, had “abused a young victim while leader of the diocese”, and that this news would “come as a great shock to people who regarded him as a hero”.

In February, HTFP reported that the victim had spoken exclusively to Brighton daily The Argus seven decades on from her ordeal.

Ms Billingham claimed the Observer’s report had breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code of Practice, stating it was inaccurate to report as fact that Bell had sexually abused a child, because he had not been found guilty in a court of law of such offences and there was no further evidence to corroborate the allegations.

The complainant provided a copy of a Church of England press release which she said appeared to be the only information available in the public domain about the matter prior to publication.

She noted that, while the press release said that the current Bishop of Chichester had issued a formal apology following the settlement of a civil claim, it did not make any absolute admissions of guilt or liability.

The complainant also said that a number of months following the publication of the article, the Bishop of Durham speaking in the House of Lords had indicated that the Church had not accepted the allegations were true.

In response, the Observer said that it had given the matter careful consideration before publication, and argued that the article accurately reflected the Church of England’s position on the claim.

The newspaper added that in the context of the current Bishop’s apology, the payment of civil damages, a thorough pre-litigation process and the police’s position on the matter that its coverage was reasonable, accurate and proportionate.

The newspaper noted that, separately, the Church had taken steps beyond the civil settlement by removing all reference to Bell’s name in the properties it owned.

It also pointed to subsequent comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Chichester Cathedral which it said demonstrated acceptance that Bell had abused a child.

In its ruling, IPSO did not accept the contention that a newspaper may only report historic allegations as fact in circumstances where a court has found this to be the case because. given their nature, many such allegations will never reach the stage where they could be considered by a court.

In such cases, newspapers are not obliged to cast doubt on allegations by constant qualification where a sufficient factual basis can be found elsewhere.

The Observer had relied on the information provided by the Church in an official press release which made clear the basis on which the legal claim relating to the allegations had been settled, and it was not unreasonable for the newspaper to conclude that the Church had accepted the account of the victim.

The complaint was not upheld, and the full adjudication can be read here.