By Daniel Pettingale
As soon as any story involving child abuse enters the news, it is easy for emotions to run high, notwithstanding that many of us who take to the streets or – more likely – our keyboards, have never experienced either sexual abuse or character assassination, and so do not really understand the ordeal for either the accuser or the accused. All that most of us will ever see is the backlash that an accusation of somebody causes in either the media or in whichever organisation is held culpable of the alleged crimes. I want to pause a moment here to emphasise the *alleged* nature of the crimes. One of the things that we must all be constantly reminding ourselves is that using that word to refer to people who have never been convicted of any crimes is not just a legal nicety. It is a reminder that as far as the law is concerned – and therefore as far as we, who are not involved in the case, are concerned – the accused is not a criminal. They are guilty of nothing. Somebody says that they are guilty of something. That is all.
In the case of one man, that is quite literally all we know. Bishop George Bell died in 1958, 37 years before the allegation of child abuse was made against him in 1995. This was dismissed at the time and has come to light late last year, when we hear that the Church of England has apparently admitted his guilt and paid out compensation for it. The police have told us that there is enough evidence that Bishop Bell would be prosecuted were he still alive but we, the public, have not been told what this evidence is, who the accuser is or even which gender they are. And yet the character of a man who was, until recently, revered by almost all who knew of him as a brave defender of morality and justice during WWII is now, with the public sanction of the Church of England, in ruins.
I have focused on this case, rather than the more recent and perhaps more topical case of Lord Janner, because it is a better example of the problem with the system as it is. In the case of Lord Janner, we are told of multiple cases involving witnesses whom we know something about, making the case against him far more credible. My purpose here is to point out the abuse of the system as it stands. Many people who hear of Bishop Bell now will hear of him only as a paedophile. His honourable work and brave stand against the bombing of German civilians during WWII will be remembered only as a curiosity, or at best, the earlier acts in a tragedy of which the most important part is the end. This is really only possible because of the modern press and, in particular, the internet. This is why anonymity for those accused of crimes like this needs to be at least a credible option, and certainly one that should be employed in a case like Bishop Bell’s.
I am sure that many of you expect me to cite the presumption of innocence as my main reason for this, and many of you would be right. What I think, however, is not quite so straightforward as the Bishop was never convicted, therefore his name should never be released. After all, I have made no complaint about Lord Janner’s case being made public. What I actually think is this: to have one’s name released in the press, and particularly online, as one who has been accused of child abuse is already a de facto punishment. However honest or well-intentioned reporters may be, headlines spread faster than legal evidence, and so many will only hear of this case in forms like Revered Bishop George Bell was a paedophile. The reputation of the accused, on which a living person may rely for employment or even simply to avoid being attacked in the street, is destroyed. They carry the shame of a paedophile whether or not they deserve it. Therefore, that information does need to be contained at least for a while, in particular if the name of the accuser is not made public (which, by the current law, it is not) and so most of us cannot call them into question. As things stand, we have a rather disturbing state of affairs in which many of us will firmly believe a certain person, no matter how high their standing was before, to be guilty of one of the vilest crimes possible for no better reason than because somebody said so.
I cannot solve this problem here; a question that is still troubling the finest legal minds in the country is too much to be answered by one student at the tail end of an article. That is not my purpose. What we need now, with emotions running high from survivors of both abuse and false abuse trials, is caution, proper procedure and patience. None of those things will be achieved if as soon as a person is accused their name is released to the mercy of the internet (a phrase that should never be spoken, read or written without a nervous flutter in the stomach.) The principle of the system of trial by jury and presumption of innocence is simple: it is better to let the guilty go free than to punish the innocent. This principle is true, but thanks to the modern press, these instruments are no longer enough to abide by it and still to give justice: they failed to abide by the principle for Bishop Bell, and failed to give justice to the victims of Lord Janner. I, or any of my readers, may tentatively suggest new instruments or refinements to those we already have, but ultimately, our main interaction with these stories will simply be in reading or hearing the news. It is no poor reflection on any of us that we are instinctively angry when we hear that somebody has been accused of abusing the most vulnerable in our society but that being the case, for the sake of justice, the best we can do is to either heavily discipline ourselves whilst reading the stories, or stay away from them altogether. It would be better for us to be uninformed than, even inadvertently, to spread misinformation.
Illustration: Kenzo Ishida