A hearing into whether the church has the same legal obligations towards priests as employers towards employees, could have massive ramifications.
The Roman Catholic Church is taking the unprecedented step of arguing in court that is is not responsible for sexual abuse committed by its priests, arguing that the relationship between a Catholic priest and the bishop of the local diocese is not an employment relationship and therefore the diocese does not have vicarious liability.
There have been thousands of accusations around the world of abuse by priests but the majority of legal cases have been settled out of court or withdrawn.
This is thought to be the first time that the Church has gone to court to defend itself against accusations specificially relating to liability.
The three day hearing, started last Tuesday, is part of a wider civil action being brought by a woman known only as Miss JGE.
She claims to have been sexually abused while living in a children’s home run an order of nuns, the English Province of Our Lady of Charity.
She alleges that she was sexually abused by a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth, Father Baldwin, who died in 2006.
The claim in that case, due to start in December, will be that the nuns were negligent and in breach of duty, and that the diocese was vicariously liable for the abuse because Father Baldwin was a Catholic priest engaged within the work of the Portsmouth diocese.
However the hearing this week will not deal with the allegations of abuse at all, but will centre on the ‘corporate responsibility’ of the church in abuse cases.
If the claim is upheld, the church will be found legally responsible for the sexual abuse committed by their priests.
The solicitor representing Miss JGE, Tracey Emmott, said: “The most astonishing point to me to emerge from this tragic and sordid case is that the Catholic church is claiming that it isn’t legally responsible for the behaviour of its own priest.
“We need to show that while Father Baldwin wasn’t strictly an employee of the church, he was acting on the bishop’s behalf and that the bishop clearly had a degree of control over his activities.”
Ms Emmott said that the consequences of the Catholic Church winning the point was that they would be able to avoid compensating all victims of sexual abuse by priests.
The Catholic Church and the Portsmouth Diocese said they would not comment until the end of the hearing.