Victims of sexual abuse by clergy are a step closer to winning compensation from the Catholic Church after the High Court ruled today that dioceses are responsible for the actions of their priests.
In a landmark ruling that could prove financially costly for the Catholic Church, Mr Justice Macduff ruled that the diocese of Portsmouth was “vicariously liable” for the acts of a priest who was accused of repeatedly raping a seven year old girl in the 1970s.
The case was brought by the girl who is now a mother, referred to as JGE in court papers.
Lawyers for the diocese argued that Father Baldwin, who died in August 2006 aged 75, was effectively self-employed and that the diocesan bishop had no powers to dismiss priests which could only be authorised in Rome.
The judge ruled that although there had been no formal contract between the church and the priest here were nonetheless "crucial features" that should be recognised as “akin to employment.”
The Catholic Church has been given leave to appeal to the Supreme Court and will almost certainly do so given that the ruling potentially opens up the floodgates for compensation claims over historical sexual abuse.
Lord Faulks QC, acting on behalf of the diocese, said the church was not seeking to evade responsibility for paedophile priests. "My clients take sexual abuse extremely seriously and are very concerned to eradicate and investigate it," he said. "This case has been brought as a point of law that has never been decided."
Macsas, a campaign group which represents survivors of sexual abuse by clergy, welcomed the judgment in a statement but criticised the Church for continuing to fight compensation claims.
“MACSAS contends that the rhetoric coming from the Catholic Church about wanting to meet the needs of victims of child abuse perpetrated within the Church is entirely contradicted by the refusal to talk to victims or to acknowledge the harm caused to them by clergy abuse, as they continue to fight to avoid liability within the courts,” the statement read.