Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Catholic church liable for priests

The Catholic Church can be held accountable for the misdemeanours of its priests following a High Court ruling in London

The High Court has ruled 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 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".

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