Last November, the High Court ruled that the Catholic Church can be held liable in abuse cases involving priests. Yesterday, the Appeal Court gave a majority ruling upholding that verdict.
The Guardian reports the case was brought by a 47-year-old woman from the Portsmouth diocese, known only as JGE, who alleged she was raped and sexually assaulted by a priest, Father Wilfred Baldwin, now deceased.
The incidents are alleged to have taken place at a convent-run children’s home in Hampshire. The Portsmouth diocese disputes that these assaults occurred.
The ruling could mean that the principal of vicarious liability, where an employer can be held responsible for the civil wrong-doings of its employees, is extended. In future, vicarious liability may apply to a relationship that is ‘akin’ to an employer-employee relationship; such as the relationship between a bishop and a parish priest or a charity and its volunteers.
According to a statement issued on behalf of the diocesan Trustees, while the Church is not opposed to legal redress for victims with valid abuse claims, they believe priests are ‘office holders’ or appointees, not employees.
The Guardian reports that one of the judges who dismissed the appeal, Lord Justice Davis, said: “It may be that the bishop had no ‘formal legal responsibility’ for Father Baldwin, but in my view his responsibility for, and control over, the parish priest whom he had appointed was real and substantial.”
The Court of Appeal also ruled that the diocese may not appeal against the decision until a similar case at the Supreme Court, to be heard later this month, is concluded.
The Trustees pointed out in their statement that abuse victims can already sue for damages on the ground of negligence, or seek redress from the actual perpetrators of the abuse without the need to hold the Church responsible. Nevertheless, it is possible that victims of abuse by Catholic priests may feel that, if only for moral reasons, the Church should accept greater responsibility for what is certainly an extensive scandal.