THE High Court ruled on Tuesday that the Roman Catholic Church could be held responsible for the wrongdoing of its priests. The ruling could make it easier for victims of clerical abuse to make compensation claims.
Mr Justice MacDuff said that the RC diocese of Portsmouth “may be vicariously liable” for the alleged sexual abuse of a woman known as JGE, now aged 47, who says that, as a child, she was abused at a children’s home in Hampshire by Fr Wilfrid Baldwin, an RC priest who died in 2006.
Mr MacDuff said in his ruling that Fr Baldwin had been appointed “by and on behalf of the defendants [the RC diocese of Portsmouth]. 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.
“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.”
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.”
The RC diocese of Portsmouth said in a statement: “By adopting the [Roman] Catholic Church’s national safeguarding policies and procedures, and through its safeguarding commission, the Diocese of Portsmouth works hard to ensure the welfare of children and vulnerable individuals within the diocese. In the circumstances, the Diocese of Portsmouth does not consider it appropriate to make any further comment about the case at this time.”
A report by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, was published this week into allegations of abuse of pupils at St Benedict’s, an RC school in West London, by monks at Ealing Abbey. The report listed 21 cases of abuse at the school since 1970.
It said: “In a school where there has been abuse, mostly — but not exclusively — as a result of the activities of the monastic community, any semblance of a conflict of interest, of lack of independent scrutiny, must be removed.” It recommended that two trusts be set up to remove “all power from the abbey”, while retaining the Benedictine link.
The headmaster of St Benedict’s school in Ealing, Christopher Cleugh, said that the school would adopt the inquiry’s recommendations. “Past abuses at the school have left a terrible legacy for those affected,” he said.