The Shame of Ireland

The Shame of Ireland

Bishop is liable for priests' actions, UK court rules

PATSY McGARRY, Religious Affairs Correspondent

ABUSE SURVIVOR groups in the UK have expressed dismay at a decision by the Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth Crispian Hollis to appeal a High Court decision in London yesterday which found bishops were responsible for the actions of priests they appoint in their diocese.

“We are greatly saddened and dismayed that the Bishop of Portsmouth has decided to appeal the ruling, forcing the survivor in this case to endure further suffering and uncertainty until the ruling is either upheld or overturned,” a statement from the Lantern Project said last night.

Earlier the Macsas group, representing survivors of abuse by ministers and clergy, said it shared “the frustrations expressed by the victim in the Portsmouth case that these lengthy court proceedings look set to continue well into 2012 and probably beyond, even further delaying justice.”

In a case which may yet have implications for the Catholic Church in Ireland, Mr Justice Macduff decided in favour of a woman who claims she was sexually assaulted by a Portsmouth priest at a children’s home in Hampshire, southern England.

She argued that the diocese was vicariously liable for the priest’s behaviour as he was a Catholic priest working in the Portsmouth diocese. Mr Justice Macduff said that, though there was no formal contract between the church and the priest, Fr Baldwin, who has since died, in law the church was vicariously liable for Fr Baldwin’s alleged wrongdoings.

In his judgement he said: “[Fr Baldwin] was ... directed into the community with that full authority and was given free rein to act as a representative of the church. He had been trained and ordained for the purpose.

“He had immense power handed to him by the defendants [the trustees of the Roman Catholic diocesan trust]. It was they who appointed him to the position of trust, which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused.”

It is the first time a UK court has ruled that the relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship. It sets a precedent for similar cases. The church has been granted extended leave to appeal against the decision.

In Ireland the matter of whether a priest is an employee of his bishop has never been tested in the courts. Actions by people who have been abused by diocesan priests are settled out of court, some even on the steps of the Four Courts. Such cases tend to include confidentiality clauses and are between the alleged abuser priest and his victim.

In London yesterday Lord Faulks QC, for the defendants, said the church was not seeking to evade responsibility for paedophile priests.

“My clients take sexual abuse extremely seriously and are very concerned to eradicate and investigate it,” he said.

The woman at the centre of the case said she was pleased with the judgment but angry about the church getting leave to appeal. She said: “I don’t feel they’re taking it [sex abuse] seriously. I’ve had no support from the church whatsoever. It feels like being on a rack, turning the screws tighter and tighter, over hot coals.”

She was admitted to the Catholic children’s home known as The Firs when she was seven. She alleges that during visits to the home Fr Baldwin sexually abused her.

She claims the nuns were negligent and in breach of duty, and that the diocese was vicariously liable for Fr Baldwin’s alleged abuse as he was a Catholic priest working in the Portsmouth diocese.

Meanwhile, Lord Carlile will today publish his findings on child protection procedures at Ealing Abbey in London, where a priest abused five pupils. – (Additional reporting Guardian Service)


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