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Court rules that Church is liable for crimes of priests

By on Thursday, 10 November 2011

The High Court in London (Photo: PA)

The High Court in London (Photo: PA)

A court has ruled that the Catholic Church can be held legally liable for the crimes of abusive clergy.

The ruling by the High Court in London for the first time defined in British law the relationship of a priest to his bishop as that of an employee to an employer, instead of seeing the priest as effectively self-employed.

This means that a bishop and a diocese can be punished for the crimes of a priest. Survivors’ groups hope that it will also mean that many people who claim to have been abused by clergy will be able to claim compensation more easily.

The court granted the trustees of the Diocese of Portsmouth extra time to appeal the decision.

The case involves a 47-year-old mother of three, referred to only by the initials JGE, who claims she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by Fr Wilfred Baldwin as a seven-year-old girl in The Firs children’s home in Waterlooville, in southern England, in the early 1970s.

She claims that she also was attacked in the dressing room of a church on the day she made her first Communion.

Besides the Diocese of Portsmouth, she is also seeking damages from the English province of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, which ran the home, because she said the nuns witnessed the abuse but did not intervene.

The court was not asked to judge the truth of the allegations but was specifically asked, as a preliminary hearing on the case, to rule on the question of whether the “relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship”.

Justice Alistair MacDuff said that although the priest had no formal contract of employment there were “crucial features” that made a bishop vicariously liable for his actions.

He said the Church gave Fr Baldwin the “premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes” and that he was given full authority and free rein in the community to “act as a representative of the church.”

“Whether or not the relationship may be regarded as ‘akin to employment,’ the principal features of the relationship dictate that the defendants should be held responsible for the actions which they initiated by the appointment and all that went with it,” said the judge.

JGE first made her complaint in 2006 when police officers investigating complaints against Fr Baldwin contacted her to ask if she had been abused by him. Inquiries concluded the same year with the death of the priest, at the age of 75.

JGE is now seeking compensation for pain, injury, humiliation and hurt feelings, saying that she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, a borderline personality disorder, and that she has attempted suicide as a result of the abuse.

The court ruling was welcomed by the victims’ support group, Ministers and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors.

But in a statement the group also expressed frustration on behalf of “hundreds if not thousands of victims” who were seeking damages but would have to await the “outcome of the appeal now to be brought by lawyers employed by the Catholic Church seeking to have this latest ruling overturned”.

The group claimed that while the Church spent millions of pounds attempting to avoid liability “the victims receive no support, and their suffering continues as they are re-traumatized by having to go through such adversarial and hostile legal processes to achieve justice”.

The Portsmouth Diocese said in a statement that it was “committed to creating a safe environment for all” and that it “works hard to ensure the welfare of children and vulnerable individuals.”

“The judgment of Mr Justice MacDuff involves complex and fundamental legal issues which remain the subject of legal proceedings,” it added. “In the circumstances, the Diocese of Portsmouth does not consider it appropriate to make any further comment about the case at this time.”

  • T A Butler

    I am quite amazed that everyone speaking on this subject has missed the most salient point in this sorry affair and I would suggest everyone reads the Bishop,s letter to his clergy which he has invited all the laity to read.
    The late Father Baldwin RIP was NOT based in the Waterlooville area at the time of the alleged offences & the diocese can easily prove this with documents to substantiate this fact.
    Therefore, we may well be witnessing ANOTHER case of a person attempting to procure money.
    I personally find it offensive that this kind of charge can be levied against a man who is unable to defend his reputation while a possible opprtunist can remain anonymous.    This situation is totally at odds with natural justice.
    Has everyone noticed just how often these charges are laid at deceased priests?     And, like most thinking people, I find it difficult to understand why a period of 30/40 yrs elapsed before a complain is raised.
    Be assured, there will be a few more “abused” coming out of the woodwork yet.

  • Nat_ons

    Excellent! And again a very thoughtful response; thank you. 

    “The Court broke new legal ground and said the priest/Bishop relationship was sufficiently ‘akin’ to employee/employer as to allow a claim to be made for vicarious liability against the Bishop.” 

    This is the point that worries me most, perhaps needlessly (others will know better than I). And here, no doubt not to the point of the court case on Romish ecclesiology, my concern is not for the overseer and the elder so much, but that of the fief and liege lord –  hence for Her Majesty or her vicars (be they Constables, Lord Ministers, or Royal Appointees) and their officials. If a court would step so far as to cast aside the actual feudal relationship between priest and bishop, may it not – just as certainly and easily – assert the feudal relationship between Sovereign and invested Minister is sufficiently equivalent to the connection of employer to employee – making the Crown vicariously responsible for the bad faith of her enfiefed public servants from merely elected mayors to secured hereditary lords (as opposed to those hireable/ fireable servants, noble or otherwise, employed for her household or to assist her vicars)?

    Bless you for taking this rather personal perplexity as serious, and for desiring to help me to puzzle it through – even simply if as lay onlookers. 


  • Nat_ons

    Would you say that if a court decided that you were responsible for accidents on your property, outside your door, or caused by your grand-children (whether living with you or under your supervision).

    The Christian is morally, legally and socially responsible for his own actions; others may be responsible for  supervising him or not doing so closely enough, or failing to hand him over to justice – this cannot make them responsible for his bad faith (only their own).

    The court makes the legal fiction of feudal relationship between bishop and priest equivalent to contractual employment; that good faith connection and its fiction unites you to those working on your ground and perhaps for the extended family owing some loyalty to you .. if one desired to push this sort of ‘new ground’ legal decision to it limits (I sincerely doubt you’d so readily hold your hands up and say: Fair Cop, Guv, how much do I have to pay).

  • Carolsheridan13

    So the church continues its fight to evade responsibility -  so much for the promise to make reparation.

  • Cjkeeffe

    Actually the Holy Father is right. In the 1990’s the House of Lords ruled that I child abuse cases even in civil courts a higher certainty was needed beyond on the balance of probabilities. But lower than beyond all reasonable doubt. The same court restricted the statute of limitations to six years after the age of 18.
    Further the courts would often as late as the 1990’s return abusive men back to the bosom of their family after a period of therapy.
    Many years ago Peter Tatchell wrote in the Guardian that not all sex between adult and children was either unwanted or abusive.
    The CTS booklet on the Abuse Issue makes chilling reading to see how society messed up its duty to protect innocent children and as all too often the church followed the social and physiological norms of the day and did the same thing. Abusive priests went of for therapy and then where reassigned to parishes.
    We can not look at past ages with the glasses of today and wonder why they did not follow our standards – simply our standards where not available at the time.
    This is a very emotive and rightly so issue, but we need more light on the subject and less heat.

  • jiver

    I do not see how wherever he was based is proof that he could not have travelled to Waterlooville to commit the offence . Am I missing something?