Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC and Justin Levinson are acting for the claimant known as “JGE” in an important case being brought against the Catholic Church. JGE claims to have been sexually abused by a priest (now deceased) whilst resident in a children’s home run by the church. The key issue to be decided is whether the Church itself can be held liable for the actions of its priest.
JGE was admitted to The Firs in Waterlooville in May 1970, aged seven. The home was run by an order of nuns, the English Province of Our Lady of Charity. She alleges that she was sexually abused by Father Baldwin, a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth.
The claim is that the nuns were negligent and in breach of duty, and that the diocese was ‘vicariously’ liable for Father Baldwin’s alleged abuse of JGE as he was a Catholic priest engaged within the work of the Portsmouth diocese.
But the Church claims that it is not responsible for the sexual abuse committed by Father Baldwin. It is this point which the hearing will settle, and which will then provide guidance for future such trials.
The judgement will decide whether the relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship. If upheld, the court will rule that the Church is legally responsible for sexual abuse of their priests. In the past, civil actions for sexual abuse by priests brought against the Catholic church have usually been settled out of court. However, this point is now being tested before a court of law for the first time.
“In effect, priests are carrying out their work assigned to them by their bishop and furthering the cause of the diocese,” Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC has argued. “As the correspondence between Father Baldwin and his bishop demonstrates, he was dependent on the bishop to assign him a post and to control when he moved from one post to another and even to control when he was permitted to retire. The degree of control was, if anything, in excess of that in the typical employer/employee relationship.”
The issue to be determined, she said, was whether the Church “can ever be vicariously liable in any situation for any tort at all”. It was, she added, “a very wide issue indeed”.
The Court of Appeal heard this case on the 16th and 17th May 2012 and judgement is awaited.