UK court rules Catholic Church liable over priests

The UK's High Court ruled today that the Catholic Church can be held liable for the wrongdoings of its priests.

A judge in London 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”.

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 Portmouth 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 she was sexually abused and raped by Father 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 Father Baldwin and the defendant”.

He said: “The defendant contends that Father 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.”.

He explained that vicarious liability “is a doctrine which makes an employer responsible for the tortious acts of an employee, acting within the scope, or course, of his employment”.

In the preliminary issue he only had to decide “whether the nature of the relationship (between Father Baldwin and the defendants) is one to which vicarious liablity may – I emphasise may – attach”.

He had to determine whether vicarious liability may attach “notwithstanding that it was a relationship which differed in significant respects from a relationship of employer and employee”.

“This is not an issue which has previously beeen decided by the courts of England and Wales.”

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.

“Father 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.

“He was given the full authority of the defendants to fulfil that role. He was provided with the premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes.

“He was directed into the community with that full authority and was given free rein to act as representative of the church.

“He had been trained and ordained for that purpose. He had immense power handed to him by the defendants.

“It was they who appointed him to the position of trust which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused.”

Anne Lawrence, of the group Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors (Macsas), said she was “relieved” by the ruling, but she added that they were concerned about the decision to appeal.

“We hope that it opens the way for the settlement of many hundreds of cases currently pending in courts up and down this country arising out of abuse by clergy or religious within the Catholic Church,” she said.

“However, we are saddened to hear that they are appealing this case. There will be no settlement for the victims until the courts make a final determination on this issue.

“The Catholic Church is showing no willingness... despite the rhetoric coming from the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, there is absolutely no sign that the Catholic Church hierarchy in England and Wales is serious about settling cases and resolving matters with victims of abuse perpetrated within the Church.”

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