Duncan Lewis

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A land mark case in the making which would see change of relationships between many organizations and their staff over the issue of vicarious liability

Date: (18 May 2012)    |    

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Sympathy with victims of sexual abuse should not be grounds for courts to extend the law on compensation "infinitely" and impose extra liabilities on employers, the court of appeal has been told.
In a test case that could see a change of relationships between many organisations and their staff, the trustees of a Catholic diocese have denied responsibility for crimes allegedly committed by a priest in a children's home.
The claim has been brought by a 47-year-old woman, known to the court as JGE, who said she was sexually and physically assaulted at the Firs children's home in Waterlooville, Hampshire, in the early 1970s.
The claimant had maintained that the nun in charge of the home assaulted her and that Father William Baldwin, the local parish priest, who has since expired, sexually abused and raped her.
The high court ruled that the trustees of the Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust were "vicariously liable" for the actions of Baldwin, even though the court was told that priests were not on salaries.
Lord Faulks QC, who represented the trustees, said they detested sexual abuse but he warned that the courts took the view that responsibilities imposed on employers should not extend to the infinity.
Lord Faulks said that it was hard to avoid the conclusion that the adverse publicity that had surrounded the Catholic church in relation to sexual abuse in recent times made the [high court] judge to make a substantial leap in reasoning so as to associate the priesthood ipso facto with sexual abuse. But that was not a satisfactory legal approach he said.
He said this decision had "wide-ranging consequences for employers and many other institutions well beyond the Roman Catholic church" and "the law was in danger of becoming confused and developing in an unprincipled way.
The understandable desire of the courts to give compensation to victims of sexual abuse beyond that provided for by parliament, or under existing laws should not have that effect he said.
The diocesan trustees also disputed the claim that Baldwin who had become the local priest after the alleging victim had left the children could have abused the woman.
The trustees denied that they were vicariously liable for Father Baldwin as a matter of law on the basis that a priest was the holder of an office and not an employee or otherwise in service.
While the priest owes his bishop reverence and obedience, he exercises his ministry as a co-operator and collaborator rather than as someone who is subject to the control of his superior as would be the case in the employment field he is only holder of an ecclesiastical office.
But Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC, for JGE, told the appeal court that the relationship was one of empowerment and granting of authority, the trustees provided the premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes to Father Baldwin and gave him the authority to carry out their work.
She added that to say they were not be liable for Baldwin's alleged crimes would in effect free the Roman Catholic church from any liabilities for any wrongs committed by priests she argued.

 

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