The Diocese of Portsmouth is liable to pay compensation for alleged sexual abuse by a priest, the Court of Appeal has ruled.
The decision, by a majority of two judges to one, makes dioceses liable for the wrongdoings of its clergy and clears the way for similar compensation claims.
A 48-year-old woman known as JGE says as a child she was beaten by a nun at a care home and later raped and sexually assaulted by a priest, Fr Wilfred Baldwin, who has since died. The diocese disputes her claim.
Lord Justice Ward said the relationship of priest and bishop was “close enough” to employer/employee “to make it just and fair to impose liability”.
One judge, Lord Justice Tomlinson, dissented, saying: “If Fr Baldwin can be properly regarded as undertaking his ministry for the benefit of anyone, I should have thought it was for the benefit of the souls of his parish.”
In a statement the trustees of Portsmouth diocese said they would be “seeking advice” about a potential appeal to the Supreme Court.
They said their appeal was not about delaying compensation but was intended to “achieve clarity as to the nature and extent of the bishop’s liability for the actions of diocesan priests”.
They said the verdict had “wide-reaching ramifications… not just for the Church but for other organisations, both charitable and commercial”.
STATEMENT BY THE TRUSTEES OF PORTSMOUTH DIOCESE FOLLOWING TODAY’S APPEAL COURT JUDGMENT
The following statement is issued on behalf of the Trustees of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth in response to the judgment by the Court of Appeal in respect of vicarious liability in the case of JGE v The Trustees of the Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust.
We brought this appeal in order to achieve clarity as to the nature and extent of the bishop’s liability for the actions of diocesan priests. A number of judgments in recent years have sought to extend the scope of vicarious liability, which is designed for relationships of employment, to very different relationships, including that between a bishop and his priest, who is an office holder and not an employee.
We had not just the right but the duty to ask the Court of Appeal to hear the different arguments in this case, not least because of the far-reaching implications to faith and other voluntary organisations of extending vicarious liability in this way.
The decision, although disappointing, was not unanimous, which emphasizes the complexity of this area of the law. The two judges who found against us acknowledged the force of our arguments and all three appeal judges commented on the difficulty of reaching a decision. The judges also referred to the wide-reaching ramifications of the decision, not just for the Church but for other organisations, both charitable and commercial.
Because this case raises complex questions of law of real public importance, the Trustees will now be seeking advice from leading counsel as to a potential appeal to the Supreme Court.
This case is not, and has never been, about seeking to avoid or delay the payment of compensation to victims with valid claims. The Diocese has for years been offering support to clerical abuse victims, and the law rightly allows victims to sue for damages on grounds of negligence, or, of course, to seek redress from the actual perpetrators of the abuse.
This case is about fundamental legal principles involving the very nature of civil society and religious freedom. It would be disastrous if, in seeking to provide redress for victims of harm, the law put intolerable new pressures on the voluntary sector. This judgment shows further thought and scrutiny are required before clarity in this regard can be established.