The vindication of the Campaign for Justice for the 96 Hillsborough dead has touched the nation, and is causing many to re-think how one views such pressure groups.
Historically it should not surprise us. The campaign to free the Birmingham 6 was similarly lengthy and convoluted, and it is not only victims who receive justice belatedly; perpetrators of abuse are also found out in time, as some of the nation’s well established celebrities are discovering.
Yet for every guilty Jimmy Savile, there is an innocent Nigel Evans: Stuart Hall was properly found guilty, Leon Britton went to his grave under an unjust cloud of suspicion because police officers were too enmeshed in the virtue of their investigation to retain objectivity.
Even the disgraced footballer Ched Evans – who undoubtedly behaved very badly towards a young woman – has been granted a re-trial because the procedure which convicted him has been considered by the Court of Appeal and found to be unsafe.
So this is the first lesson for the Church. Justice matters, even historic injustice must be righted, even if it takes time and erodes confidence in an important institution.
This brings us to the late Bishop George Bell.
From the little they knew, the Hillsborough families were not able to accept that what they were being told by the powers that be, was safe and based upon a transparent process of integrity. For such temerity, they were characterised as “whining scousers” who were unduly inclined to embrace victimhood. Such claims look pretty shoddy this side of the Inquest verdicts.
This is the second lesson which we can draw from Hillsborough for the Church. Ignoring legitimate concerns is wrong. It will also be a fundamental error to characterise those scrutinising the Church’s investigation of the Bishop Bell case as “strident”.
Nobody in the campaign is denying the possibility that the complainant in the case is telling the truth, yet what is attracting objective people to support the campaign, is an examination of the information currently in the public domain which draws experienced lawyers and public figures to the inescapable conclusion that one cannot see a fair- and therefore a safe – process at work.
In the past the Church has often applied an unfair opaque process leading to injustice for the accusers; it is no improvement to replace that with an unjust opaque process leading to injustice to the accused.
This is the third lesson of Hillsborough for the Church. Those campaigning for Justice do not go away quietly
The Church authorities have tried to close the debate by refusing to answer questions. We are told that they have conducted a comprehensive enquiry and have been advised by experts. They refuse even to confirm the area professional expertise of those experts. We must trust the process because the Church says it has been thorough.
Nothing will alarm anyone with expertise in Child Protection Law more than such a patronising assertion.
Over the past thirty years, there have been many public Inquiries into issues of child protection; that history is littered with discarded , confidently asserted expert opinion.
There are fashions in child abuse practice just as there are in skirt lengths.
The existence of widespread ‘Satanic Child Abuse’, has dropped off the agenda and the nature of “Munchausen Syndrome” and “False Memory Syndrome” have been downgraded from the status of medically diagnosable syndromes, to that of a loose description of phenomena to be considered – but only with with a great deal of caution.
For anyone acquainted with such matters, “Trust me I am an expert” cuts no more ice than ” Trust me I am a Bishop’. An expert opinion is only as good as the facts made available and not all are as intellectually curious outside of the brief presented.
Once, Freudian Psychiatrists would earnestly tell the Courts that many little girls fantasise over having sex with their fathers; we are currently in an age where many assert that all complainants must be assumed to be truthful. We seem to forgotten the lesson of the Cleveland Report which was to “listen to the child ( complainant) and take what they say seriously’. That is not the same as belief, and requires an ongoing objectivity throughout the process.
So, the fourth lesson is surely The Age of deference has passed.
Paradoxically, that may have washed in Bishop Bell’s day, but it certainly is not accepted today.
The Hillsborough Campaign gathered support because enough people cared to keep it in the public eye. If the Church hierarchy is hoping that those troubled by the current state of publicly available information will let it drop, it is mistaken. Questions will be asked at Synod and any attempt to evade questions on the basis of a mistaken view of what is and is not “confidential” will only irritate Synod members.
That irritation will be picked up by the Church press and such mainstream commentators as Charles Moore and Peter Hitchens. It is understood that members of the House of Lords are disquieted and may introduce a debate.
So lesson number five is The concerns of ordinary people do reach the public ear.
Plainly the Church does not want the issue of sexual abuse to again dominate the headlines; the complainant has said publicly that every time the matter hits the headlines, she is distressed.
If the Church wants to bring this matter to a satisfactory close it can do so by being more transparent and engaging properly with the questions that are legitimately raised as to the processes by which its decisions have been reached.
The Establishment approached the Hillsborough families with imperious disregard for proper standards of justice, and tried to defend the indefensible. People not only now distrust what happened then, they are now distrustful of how the police and Government will act in the future
Here we have the sixth and final lesson.
Justice4GeorgeBell is not about Justice for the past but whether the Church is currently capable of delivering Justice now and in the future.
At present, it is impossible to answer that question in the affirmative.