Catholic church’s plea could rule out damages for priests’ abuse

Victims’ lawyers condemn ‘scandalous’ defence that Catholic priests are not legally employees of the church

Victims of sexual abuse by priests will no longer be able to sue the Catholic church for damages if a landmark judgment rules that priests should not be considered as employees.

In a little publicised case heard this month at the high court, the church claimed that it is not “vicariously liable” for priests’ actions. The church has employed the argument in the past but this was the first time it had been used in open court and a ruling in the church’s favour would set a legal precedent.

The use of the defence raises further questions about the church’s willingness to accept culpability for abuse. It follows a damning report into abuse at the diocese of Cloyne in Ireland which prompted the Irish president, Mary McAleese, to call on leaders of the church “to urgently reflect on how, by coherent and effective action, it can restore public trust and confidence in its stated objective of putting children first”.

Those planning to bring claims in relation to the high court case expressed dismay. “As children, we weren’t given an innocent, carefree and safe environment,” said one. “We weren’t given a peaceful structure in which to grow and develop normally. By some miracle, some of us are still here to voice the words of so many who can’t. Only a small number of victims ever come forward. The full potential of who we could have been as adults has been stolen.”

The church’s defence has been condemned by lawyers. “I think the Catholic church’s attempt to avoid responsibility for the abhorrent actions of one of its priests is nothing short of scandalous,” said Richard Scorer of the law firm Pannone, which specialises in abuse cases. “The Catholic church would be better served by facing up to its responsibilities rather than trying to hide behind spurious employment law arguments.”

The ruling is being made as part of a preliminary hearing into the case of “JGE”, who claims to have been sexually abused while a six-year-old resident at The Firs, a children’s home in Portsmouth run by an order of nuns, the English Province of Our Lady of Charity. “If we fail, it would mean that no other victims of Catholic priests would be able to be compensated,” said Tracey Emmott of Emmott Snell, a specialist in working with sexual abuse claims who is representing JGE.

JGE alleges that she was sexually abused by Father Wilfred Baldwin, a priest of the Roman Catholic diocese of Portsmouth and its “vocations director”, who regularly visited The Firs during the 70s. Her legal team claim the nuns were negligent and in breach of duty, and that the diocese was liable for Baldwin’s alleged abuse as he was a Catholic priest engaged within the work of the diocese.

Previous hearings in the House of Lords and the court of appeal relating to other church organisations have found that ministers should be treated as employees. But there has been no judgment yet on whether the relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship.

“They claim that 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 liability’ for the priest’s acts,” Emmott said.

“That is to say, whatever sexual abuse their priests might commit, it is not their responsibility. They are absolved of blame. 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.”

Criminal proceedings against Baldwin, who was the subject of a police investigation, concluded when he died of a heart attack in 2006.

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Bishops oppose mandatory contraception and sterilization coverage

The U.S. bishops “strongly oppose” a proposal to mandate coverage of surgical sterilization and all FDA-approved birth control in private health insurance plans nationwide.

The mandate would undermine the good of women and children and the consciences of heath care providers, one leading bishop said.

“Pregnancy is not a disease, and fertility is not a pathological condition to be suppressed by any means technically possible,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The health care legislation passed in 2010 directed the Obama administration to create a list of preventive services for women that all new health care plans must cover without deductibles or co-payments.

In response, a committee of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine drafted non-binding guidelines in a year-long review conducted at the request of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

The committee recommended “the full range” of federally approved contraceptives and sterilization procedures.

Cardinal DiNardo noted that the Institute of Medicine committee said it would have good reason to recommend mandatory coverage for surgical abortions, if such a mandate were not prevented by law.

“I can only conclude that there is an ideology at work in these recommendations that goes beyond any objective assessment of the health needs of women and children,” he said in a July 19 statement.

Planned Parenthood, the cardinal said, is “celebrating” the report, and if the HHS implements its recommendations it will violate the “deeply-held moral and religious convictions of many.”

For its part, the Institute of Medicine “missed an opportunity to promote better health care for women that is life-affirming and truly compassionate,” he added.

Catholic teaching regards direct sterilization procedures and artificial contraceptive use as sinful.

Americans United for Life also opposed the proposal, saying it would fund the abortion-inducing drug Ella.

Anna Franzonello, staff counsel for Americans United for Life, on July 20 said that her organization had warned about the possibility of funding abortion and abortion-causing drugs through the health care legislation’s mandate before its passage.

The pro-life group’s concerns are heightened by the Institute of Medicine’s invitation to abortion advocacy groups, including Planned Parenthood, to help form its recommendation.

The group charged that Planned Parenthood stands to gain financially from the mandate.

Americans United for Life called on the Department of Health and Human Services to “respect the conscience rights of Americans” and honor Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) promise that the mandate would be used to prevent diseases.

Cardinal DiNardo said the threat to consciences makes it “especially critical” for Congress to pass the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act, which would forbid federal requirements that make health plans require providers to provide items or services which violate religious beliefs or moral convictions.

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Pope Benedict set to cancel Irish visit after harsh criticism of Vatican

Pope Benedict is said to be reviewing his planned trip to Ireland next year after the Irish government issued harsh criticism of the Vatican over the latest church cover up scandal, according to the Irish Independent.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny and Deputy Leader Eamon Gilmore have slammed the Vatican for their policy of urging bishops not to accept the guidelines laid down by the Irish hierarchy on reporting child abuse.

The criticism came after the retired Bishop of Cloyne John Magee was harshly criticised after 19 priests in his diocese suspected of pedophilia were given kid gloves treatment, apparently at the behest of the Vatican.

Enda Kenny stated it was “disgraceful” that the Vatican ignored child protection safeguards agreed by the Irish bishops while the Papal Nuncio was summoned to the Foreign Ministry by Gilmore who demanded an explanation for Rome’s “inappropriate” intervention” in Irish affairs.

Kenny’s parliamentary party chairman Charles Flanagan called for the Papal Nuncio Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, to be expelled, a move that had 72 percent public support according to a journal.ie poll.

The Vatican had declared the Irish bishops’ 1996 Groundwork Document, which urged strict reporting to police and a major crackdown on pedophiles, as “a mere study document.”

They claimed it conflicted with canon law. Benedict was expected in Ireland in June for the Eucharistic Congress in Ireland but the harsh reaction to the Cloyne report has put those plans on hold.

There will be great interest in government circles about how Pope Benedict handles the Cloyne report when it is given to him.

Bishop Magee, now retired is in the US and has been out of contact after the outraged media and public reaction to the report.

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Pro-gay bishop under fire

An unidentified group of people hung blankets on the railing that surrounds the Cathedral of Saltillo, Mexico with a message for Bishop Raul Vera Lopez: “We want a Catholic bishop.”

Employees at the Cathedral of Saltillo said they do not know who hung up the blankets or who took them down. “We don’t have them, and nobody here took them down,” said one employee.

According to the Mexican daily Vanguardia, the bishop chose not to respond to the July 12 protests against his leadership in the Diocese of Saltillo, where he has promoted and supported the San Elredo homosexual community, despite its positions that are at odds with Church teaching on homosexuality.

The diocese’s office of communications said Bishop Vega may issue a statement once he has been fully informed of the incident.

In June of this year, Noe Ruiz, the coordinator of San Elredo, said the group planned to ask newly elected local officials in the State of Coahuila to establish policies that respect homosexuals.

Ruiz added that his group planned to propose that same-sex couples be allowed to adopt and receive social security benefits, and that civil unions between them be called “marriage.”

The Diocese of Saltillo

In March of this year, Bishop Vera published a statement on the diocesan website expressing support for the “sexual, family and religious diversity forum.”

The event was aimed at “eradicating what some sectors of the Church believe about homosexuality” — especially the belief “that homosexual actions are contrary to God.”

Ruiz told CNA the purpose of the forum was to show that “two men or two women can raise a child and live normally like everyone else.”

Pro-family groups in Saltillo, such as the Familias Mundi Association, disagreed with that argument.

“We do not agree with forming same-sex families because families come from marriage, and marriage is a vocation that occurs between two people of the opposite sex who complement one another.”

CNA also interviewed Fr. Leopoldo Sanchez, who until a few months ago was the spiritual director for Courage Latino in Mexico, a ministry for homosexuals who wish to live according to the Church’s teachings.

“The Church reminds us that the right path is the path of love, a love that is lived in chastity, and absolutely all Christians are called to this, regardless of whether they have same-sex attraction or not,” he said.

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Vatican denies ordering bishops’ silence

IN THE first sign of a reaction by the Vatican to the Cloyne report, its press officer has claimed the Holy See never instructed Irish bishops to withhold information on abuse cases.

Fr Federico Lombardi said that, instead, the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference was told at a meeting in Rosses Point, Sligo, in November 1998 that neither the Church nor its priests should impede the course of civil justice.

Fr Lombardi’s statement rejected criticism of the Congregation of the Clergy, which undermined the Irish Church’s framework child protection document in 1997 by advising that mandatory reporting of abuse allegation could be contrary to canon law.

The Cloyne report considered this intervention by the Vatican, in 1997, to be entirely unhelpful because it told the Irish bishops that the adoption of their framework document could be “highly embarrassing” for diocesan authorities.

Fr Lombardi’s statement, delivered through Vatican Radio, said that the Congregation of the Clergy was only ever told that the framework was a working document from a bishops’ committee and not the agreed position of the Episcopal Conference.

He said its response was not an invitation to disregard Irish civil law, because there was no law in place at the time to require mandatory reporting.

He also said that, in 1998, the prefect to the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Castrillion Hoyos, told the meeting in Sligo that the Church should not stand in the way of criminal investigations.

Fr Lombardi said the criticism of the Vatican since the publication of the Cloyne report went beyond any comments Ms Justice Yvonne Murphy made in the document itself, which he said were more balanced.

However, the survivors’ group One in Four described Fr Lombardi’s intervention as “wholly inadequate”.

Its executive director, Maeve Lewis, said his statement was an attempt to deny the findings of the Cloyne report.

“Fr Lombardi’s response completely lacks substance and is part of the now familiar refusal by the Vatican to acknowledge that the culture of loyalty and secrecy which facilitated the sexual abuse of children extended far beyond the Irish Church and that it was supported by official Vatican policy,” she said.

“It is further evidence, if it were needed, that the Vatican’s claim to prioritise the safety of children is completely lacking in credibility.

“It underlines the importance for the Irish state to ensure that an unequivocal legal framework is in place to protect children and to punish those who withhold information or place children in danger,” said Ms Lewis.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore has already asked the papal nuncio in Ireland, Dr Giuseppe Leanza, to return to him with a full explanation on the comments made by the Vatican in 1997.

Fr Lombardi delivered his statement on Vatican Radio under the guise of a personal comment rather than an official one.

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