8 Nov 2011

Catholic church liable for priests charged with abuse

Health and Social Care Editor

A high court judge rules that the Catholic church is legally responsible for priests charged with child abuse, in a landmark case.

The ruling, which has far-reaching consequences, now means that victims of abuse can sue the church itself, rather than being forced to pursue the individual priests.

The Catholic church has always argued that it is not “vicariously liable” for the actions of priests. In a three-day hearing in July before Mr Justice Alastair MacDuff, the church argued that priests are not employees. They said there was no contract of employment, that priests paid self-employed taxes and that the positions were never advertised.

But today Mr Justice MacDuff rejected this argument. In his ruling he said that Father Wilfred Baldwin, who is accused of abuse, was appointed “by and on behalf of the defendants”, the Portsmouth diocese.

He [the priest] had immense power handed to him by the defendants [the church]. It was they who appointed him to the position of trust which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused. Mr Justice MacDuff

“He was so appointed in order to do their work, to undertake the ministry on behalf of the defendants to fulfil that role… He was directed into the community with that full authority and was given free reign to act as representative of the church,” the ruling read.

“He had immense power handed to him by the defendants. It was they who appointed him to the position of trust which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused.”

Catholic Church liable for priests charged with abuse (Getty)

Global implications

The case was part of a preliminary hearing into the case of ‘JGE’, who claims that she was sexually abused by Father Wilfred Baldwin, now deceased, while she was in care in a children’s home in Portsmouth between 1970 and 1972.

JGE’s solicitor Tracey Emmott told Channel 4 News: “This judgment is important because for the first time the court has found that the church is legally responsible for acts of abuse by some of its priests. Even though there is no formal employment-type contract, the nature of the relationship between the Bishop and the priest is such that liability can be imposed.”

Read more: Paedophile priests remain in Catholic church

She added: “This had implications not only in this country but potentially globally.”

Lord Faulks QC for the Portsmouth diocese said that the case had been brought as a pure point of law. He said his clients take sexual abuse extremely seriously and are very concerned to eradicate and investigate it. The diocese of Portsmouth said it did not consider it “appropriate” to comment on the judgement.

Nuns accused of negligence

The children’s home, now closed, where the abuse of JGE is alleged to have taken place was called The Firs and was run by an order of nuns, the English Province of Our Lady of Charity, in Waterlooville. Father Baldwin was a priest in the Roman Catholic diocese of Portsmouth and was its vocations director.

JGE alleges she was abused for two years from the age of six. Her claim is that the nuns were negligent and in breach of duty and that the diocese was liable for Father Baldwin’s alleged abuse.

But before she could proceed with her claim, the court said that she would have to successfully argue that the church could be held liable. Her solicitor, Tracey Emmott, said that if her client had failed no victim of abuse by a priest would have been able to seek compensation.

Widespread abuse

Thousands of people around the world have claimed that they were victims of paedophile clergy. But until now cases have been settled out of court or withdrawn and a number of diocese, mainly in the United States, have declared bankruptcy in anticipation of pending claims.

The Catholic church has argued before that it cannot be held vicariously liable for the actions of its priests but this was the first time the argument had been heard in open court.