TRUSTEES OF the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth are taking advice from counsel about an appeal to the Supreme Court following a Court of Appeal ruling that the diocese is liable to pay compensation for alleged sexual abuse by a priest.
A woman, now aged 48, claims that she was beaten by a nun at a care home and later raped by a priest, Fr Wilfred Baldwin, who died in 2006. The diocese disputes her claim.
In their statement the trustees said they were not trying to delay the payment of compensation but seeking ‘clarity as to the nature and extent of the bishop’s liability for the actions of diocesan priests’.
They warned that the case is about ‘fundamental legal principles involving the very nature of civil society and religious freedom’ and they claimed that ‘it would be disastrous if, in seeking to provide for the victims of harm, the law put intolerable pressures on the voluntary sector’.
As the trustees pointed out, the three judges of the Court of Appeal acknowledged the case was complex and one of them, Lord Justice Tomlinson, dissented from the judgement.
Although there has been concern in all Churches that the case called into question the status of clergy as office holders rather than employees, the main question at issue was whether dioceses are ‘vicariously liable’ for offences committed by clergy.
In the original judgement, handed down on 11 November, 2011, the judge argued that although a priest is not an employee of a diocese, the diocese could still be held vicariously liable for harm caused by the priest. In the past, vicarious liability has applied to businesses on the grounds that as a business exists to make a profit it should be obliged to pay for harm caused by people working for it.
As the trustees point out, the extension of the concept of vicarious liability to non-profit making bodies has implications for organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors.
“A priest is an ‘office-holder’ rather than an employee – status similar in many ways to being self-employed. This reflects the reality that a priest is not under the day-to-day control of his bishop, as an employee is of his employer, nor does he minister for the benefit of his bishop, as an employee works for the benefit of his employer,” the Diocese of Portsmouth points out in a note to accompany the statement from the trustees.
When the original judgement was made, Neil Addison argued on his religious law blog that the case was less exciting than it seems. He did not see a major threat to the status of clergy as office holders (although he acknowledged that pressure to see them as employees was growing) but he warned that this case was evidence that the concept of vicarious liability was being expanded.
He added that: “As a lawyer I am increasingly concerned by the justice, or injustice, of Claimants being allowed to bring claims alleging acts decades ago by people who are now dead and unable to defend themselves. That seems to go against every principle of Natural Justice and ultimately will bring the law into disrepute.”