Catholic Church responsible for child abuse, High Court rules

The High Court has ruled that the Catholic Church is responsible for child abuse by members of the clergy.

In a judgment handed down yesterday Mr Justice MacDuff said that the church could not be absolved of responsibility on the grounds of members of the clergy being self-employed, stating that the relationship between a priest and his bishop is sufficiently close so as to impose responsibility.

The judgment comes in a civil action brought by Miss JGE, now 47, who claimed to have been sexually abused and raped by a Catholic priest while resident in a Hampshire children’s home in the 1970s.

The priest in question, Father Baldwin, was arrested and being investigated by police when he died in 1996.

The Church argued that is was not liable for damages since Father Baldwin was not an employee of the diocese but MacDuff J ruled that Portsmouth Diocese “may be vicariously liable” for the priest’s alleged abuse of JGE.

Speaking to The Lawyer, JGE’s solicitor Tracey Emmott, director at Emmott Snell Solicitors, said: “This is a key decision with potentially far-reaching implications, effectively extending the principle of vicarious liability.

 “Although the relationship between the priest accused of abuse and his bishop lacked many of the features of formal employment, this did not prevent Mr Justice MacDuff from finding that the church could be held liable for his actions.   

“This clears the way for victims of clerical abuse to proceed with their claims for proper recognition and justice through the civil courts.”

Emmott instructed One Crown Office Row’s Lizanne Gumbel QC on behalf of the claimant.

1 Chancery Lane’s Lord Faulkes QC was instructed by the Catholic Church Insurance Association (CCIA) on behalf of the defendant.

The news comes as a report published today on the Catholic Church abuse scandal at Ealing Abbey and St Benedict’s school has stated that Ealing Abbey monks be stripped of control of the West London school.

The report by Lord Carlile QC lists 21 separate cases of abuse since 1970 while the school was under the monks’ rule.

Lord Carlile said that the form of governance at St Benedict’s was “wholly outdated and demonstrably unacceptable,” recommending that two trusts should be launched to remove “all power from the Abbey”.

“The new governing body must create a clear accountability between school management, governors and trustees,” the report states.

An inquiry was launched last year after former head Father David Pearce was jailed for eight years in 2009 for the systematic abuse of five boys over a period of 36 years.

The report was issued to parents last night with headmaster Chris Cleugh admitting that the school “could have, and should have, done more” to prevent the abuse.

“We are determined that safeguarding procedures at Benedict’s should in future be exemplary and the appalling abuses of the past should never happen again,” he said.

The suggested changes to the governing structures will come into effect in the next academic year.

It is believed that a number of former pupils are launching civil claims against the school and the Abbey over the abuse with the Vatican launching its own inquiry into the sex abuse allegations.