Friday 23 March 2018

Catholic Church liable over priests – London High Court

Cathy Gordon

THE High Court in London ruled today that the Catholic Church can be held liable for the wrongdoings of its priests.

A judge announced his decision in a case which has been described as being "an issue of wide general importance in respect of claims against the Catholic Church".

Although the point to be decided arose in a damages action over alleged sex abuse by a priest, it is understood that the decision will affect other types of claims made against the Church.

Mr Justice MacDuff gave a decision in favour of a 47-year-old woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, who claims she was sexually assaulted as a child by the late Father Wilfred Baldwin, a priest of the Portsmouth Diocese, at a children's home in Hampshire run by an order of nuns.

Giving his decision on a preliminary issue in her damages action the judge held that, in law, the Church "may be vicariously liable" for Father Baldwin's alleged wrongdoings.

The trustees of the Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust - the defendant "standing in the shoes of the bishop" - were given leave to appeal.

Lord Faulks QC, for the defendants, said today that the Catholic Church "takes sexual abuse extremely seriously and it is entirely concerned to eradicate it".

The preliminary issue was on a point of law, he said, and emphasised that the Church was not seeking to abandon responsibility for sexual abuse.

During the hearing of the issue in July, the judge was told by Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC, representing the woman at the centre of the sex abuse claim, that the issue to be determined was whether the Church "can ever be vicariously liable in any situation for any tort at all".

It was, she said, "a very wide issue indeed".

Lawyers for the alleged victim said it was the first time a court has 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 Father 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 is liable for the actions of one of its priests whether deliberate or careless and however closely connected those actions were to the role of priest".

Ms Gumbel told the judge that this would "place the Catholic Church in a unique position as far as avoiding responsibility for the acts or omissions of any priest working within the church organisation in whatever role".

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