Church can be liable for abuse by priests, rules judge
Published 09/11/2011 | 05:00
THE Catholic Church and senior bishops can be held legally responsible for sexual abuse by priests, the High Court in Britain has ruled in a landmark judgment.
Mr Justice MacDuff gave a decision in favour of a 47-year-old woman who claims that she was sexually assaulted as a child by the late Fr Wilfred Baldwin, a priest of the Portsmouth diocese, at a Hampshire children's home run by an order of nuns.
Giving his decision on a preliminary issue in her damages action, he ruled that the church "may be vicariously liable''.
The Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust was given leave to appeal.
Lord Faulks, for the trust, said that the Catholic Church "takes sexual abuse extremely seriously and it is entirely concerned to eradicate it".
During the hearing of the issue in July, the judge was told by Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel, representing the woman at the centre of the abuse claim, that the issue was whether the church "can ever be vicariously liable in any situation for any tort at all".
Lawyers for the alleged victim said it was the first time a court had been asked to rule on whether the "relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship".
Ms Gumbel told the judge the preliminary issue was "essentially whether Fr Baldwin should be treated as having been in the position of an employee" of the trustees of the Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust.
She said: "The preliminary issue is intended to determine an issue of wide general importance in respect of claims against the Catholic Church.
"That is whether any priest carrying out his work as a Roman Catholic priest is in a position akin to an employee for the purposes of imposing vicarious liability on the relevant diocesan trustees or bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese."
If the answer was "yes", then the next issue would be whether the priest was carrying out the actions complained of in circumstances which were "closely connected" with his role and/or work as a priest.
If the answer was "no", there would be "no circumstances where the Roman Catholic Church was liable for the actions of one of its priests."
In his written ruling, Mr Justice MacDuff made clear that it had been agreed for the purposes of the litigation that the trustees of the Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust "stood in the place of the Bishop of Portsmouth at the material time".
He said: "The issue is whether the diocesan bishop should be held vicariously liable for the torts of the priest of his diocese."
The claimant, who is seeking damages for personal injury, alleges that she was sexually abused and raped by Fr Baldwin, who died in 2006, when she was resident at the Firs Children's Home in Waterlooville, Hampshire, between May 1970 and May 1972.
Mr Justice MacDuff said the issue "turns upon the relationship between Fr Baldwin and the defendant (the trust)".
He said: "The defendant contends that Fr Baldwin was not its employee, nor was the relationship 'akin to employment' and that vicarious liability cannot attach to the relationship which exists between them."
In the preliminary issue, he only had to decide "whether the nature of the relationship (between Fr Baldwin and the defendants) is one to which vicarious liability may -- I emphasise may -- attach".
The differences from a contract of employment were that there was "no real element of control or supervision, no wages, no formal contract and so on".
He added: "But are those differences such that the defendants should not be made responsible for the tortious acts of the priest acting within the course of his ministry?
"There are, it seems to me, crucial features which should be recognised. Fr Baldwin was appointed by and on behalf of the defendants.
"He was so appointed in order to do their work; to undertake the ministry on behalf of the defendants for the benefit of the church."
The judge added: "It was they who appointed him to the position of trust which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused." (© Daily Telegraph, London)