Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC and Justin Levinson are acting for the claimant known as “JGE” in an important case 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 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.
The Court of Appeal has now ruled that the Church is legally responsible for sexual abuse of their priests and the relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship.
“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”.