The Roman Catholic church’s liability for the wrongdoings of its priests is being tested in a high court hearing that could have a significant impact on clerical sexual abuse cases.
Mr Justice MacDuff has been asked to decide if the relationship between a bishop and a priest is similar to that between employers and their staff.
The case has arisen after a woman, known as JGE, brought a case against the diocese of Portsmouth, alleging that one of its priests had abused her while she was a resident at a Catholic children’s home, The Firs, in Waterlooville, Hampshire. The three-day hearing, which started yesterday, will not focus on the abuse claims but on the issue of corporate liability.
She claims Father Wilfrid Baldwin was able to gain access to The Firs and have contact with its residents through his work as a priest. According to her lawyers, Baldwin’s duties establish a connection between the church and the priest.
“In effect, priests are carrying out their working assigned to them by their bishop and furthering the cause of the diocese,” Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC, counsel for the woman, argued. “As the correspondence between Father Baldwin and his bishop demonstrates, he was dependent on the bishop to assign him a post and to control when he moved from one post to another and even to control when he was permitted to retire. The degree of control was, if anything, in excess of that in the typical employer/employee relationship.”
The issue to be determined, Gumbel said, was whether the church “can ever be vicariously liable in any situation for any tort at all”. It was, she added, “a very wide issue indeed”.
Lawyers for the alleged victim say it is 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”.
If the answer was “yes” then the next issue would be whether the priest was carrying out the actions complained of in circumstances that 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”.
Gumbel told the judge this would place the 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”.
Although the point to be decided has arisen in a damages action over alleged sex abuse, any decision will affect other types of claims made against the church.
The diocese denies it is vicariously liable and is defending itself against the claim. A ruling in its favour would mean the church could avoid paying compensation to victims of clerical sexual abuse.
The woman’s solicitor, Tracey Emmott, said in a statement that the church claimed the relationship “between the bishop of the diocese and the parish priest in question does not amount to anything akin to a relationship of employment and therefore there cannot be any ‘vicarious’ responsibility for the priest’s acts”.
The hearing continues.