A religious congregation which provided teachers to an East Yorkshire residential school can be held liable for the sex abuse which took place there, the Supreme Court has ruled.
St William’s, a school at Market Weighton, near Hull, was closed in 1994 after the headmaster, Brother James Carragher, was accused, and later convicted, of sexual offences against boys over 20 years.
Nearly 200 men who say they were abused by Brothers at the school are claiming £8 million in damages from the school’s managers and the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, known as the De La Salle Brothers, which provided the teachers.
Defending the action, the congregation claimed it could not be held vicariously liable for the actions of the teaching Brothers.
But overturning High Court and Court of Appeal rulings in its favour, the Supreme Court said the congregation could share liability with the Diocese of Middlesbrough which owned and managed the school.
The relationship between the teaching Brothers and the congregation had all of the essential elements of that between employees and an employer, the court said.
Teaching took place on the direction of the congregation, was in furtherance of the 340-year-old congregation’s mission and the manner of teaching was dictated by its rules.
The fact that the Brothers were bound to the congregation by their vows, rather than a contract, and transferred all earnings to the congregation made no material difference. The court said: “In this case the institute placed the Brothers in teaching positions and in particular the position of headmaster, responsible for running the school.
“The boys living on the premises were particularly vulnerable, not just as children in a school but because they were virtually prisoners and would have difficulty making credible allegations of abuse because of their personal histories…
“This was not a borderline case and it was fair, just and reasonable for the institute to share vicarious liability in this case.”
Compensation claims by victims of abuse at the school can now be examined in court.
Brother Aidan Kilty, Provincial of the De La Salle Brothers, said they accepted the court’s decision.
“This has been a complex legal case which had to be settled by the courts. The De La Salle Brothers always maintained that it did not manage St William’s School and this was upheld by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
“As we have previously stated, we deeply regret what happened at St William’s and the harm that was done there through the behaviour of James Carragher… We totally condemn, without reservation, any action or behaviour which harms young people.”
A statement from the Diocese of Middlesbrough said: “We appealed this case in the belief that there was an important principle of justice at stake: that those who ran St William’s on a day-to-day basis at the time the alleged abuse took place should share the burden of compensating its victims.
“The Supreme Court has agreed, unanimously overturning the decisions of the lower courts, and ruling that the De La Salle Brothers should share liability for abuse proved to have been perpetrated by members of their Order at St William’s.
“We are also pleased that, now that the question of who is legally liable for the historic abuse at St William’s has been decided, the individual claims for compensation can begin to be examined by the courts.”