Court rules Church may be responsible for priests’ wrongdoing

It’s a precedent-setting ruling out of the Royal Court of Justice in London.

From the Guardian:

Victims of clerical sexual abuse will find it easier to bring compensation claims against the Catholic church after a judge ruled it can be held responsible for the wrongdoings of its priests.

In a test case heard at the high court, Mr Justice Macduff gave a decision in favour of a woman, known as JGE, who claims she was sexually assaulted by a Portsmouth priest at a children‘s home in Hampshire.

The judge said although there had been no formal contract between the church and the priest, the late Father Baldwin, there were “crucial features” that should be recognised.

He said: “He [Baldwin] was provided with the premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes. He 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 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, by providing further guidance for such trials in the future, while also putting the church in uncharted territory. The church has been granted extended leave to appeal the decision.

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12 responses to “Court rules Church may be responsible for priests’ wrongdoing”

  1. This seems like common sense — not to mention simple justice for those who were victimized by priests, particularly problem priests the hierarchy knew about but refused to pull from public ministry and report to the police.

    The claim that a priest is not an “employee” of the diocese (a claim that is common around the globe, from what I’ve read) rings hollow when one considers the priest’s vow of obedience to his bishop, not to mention that no priest is allowed to “freelance” on matters of liturgical design or doctrine (at least not without the threat of sanctions from the hierarchy if the hierarchy so chooses). Of course the priest is an employee within the diocese. And the bishop is, in a real sense, in a somewhat similar relationship with regard to the Vatican. (Yeah, every bishop is master within his own diocese, to a degree. But someone like Archbishop Hunthausen, formerly of the archdiocese of Seattle, might describe his experience with Vatican supervision during the late 80s/early 90s in different terms.)

  2. A cleric is not an ”employee”, but something more intimate: he is the son of the bishop, brother to his peers, and father to the faithful.

    What is the standard of culpability (liability in legal/fiscal terms) in a family? To my mind, the family bears moral responsibility for one another, and possibly legal liability for covering up bad behavior known within the family. It’s worth noting that the bonds of family provide for mutual care and healing in relationships, while a corporate model assigns compensation to consumers of the corporation’s product.

    Far from being sickening, the responsibiliy the family of God (or Body of Christ) bears for one another is our great hope and sign to the world that the Kingdom of God is among us.

  3. I would think that those who want a greater level of accountability for child abuse in both schools and scouting would be hailing this decision, and offering it as a model for how the US should deal with child abuse in both religious and secular institutions. Those in position of responsibility in organizations should be held to this standard, whether they are scout leaders, school administrators or church officials.

  4. The opinion of Justice MacDuff (a name redolent of Burns or Walter Scott or the Bard) contains references to the RC diocese argument. Incredible to me as a mere Anglican Christian (as C.S. Lewis might have said) was the argument of the RC hierarchy in England that an ordinary bishop in a diocese has no power other than as spiritual advisor over a pastor. Really? Here in the (ex) colonies your RC bishops have no qualms about sacking pastors and transferring them at will. The English RC hierarchy has made itself over into C of E bishops in their argument. Helpless against priest incumbents, and able only to offer prayerful words. When did this become your church’s practice, as it certainly doesn’t apply in most North American dioceses? If you doubt the RCC made that argument read Milord MacDuff’s high court opinion.

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