In a precedent-setting decision yesterday, the London High Court ruled that the U.K.’s Roman Catholic Church can be held liable for the sexual misconduct of its priests.
The ruling came in the case of a 47-year-old woman who alleged that she was raped by the now-deceased Father Wilfred Baldwin at a children’s home during the 1970s. The judge determined that the Portsmouth Diocese “may be vicariously liable” for the said allegations. The woman can now proceed with her claim for damages.
The decision hinged on whether the church’s relationship with its priests constituted an employer-employee relationship. The church argued that the arrangement between the church and their priests is not explicitly one of employment. Justice Macduff disagreed, however, and concluded that the working connection between a priest and his superiors was “sufficiently close so as to impose responsibility.” He explained:
[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.
The ruling could open the door for hundreds of U.K. priest-abuse survivors to bring suits against the Catholic Church. In the United States, more than a dozen dioceses have been held liable for priest abuse or settled suits with victims since 1997.
The Church may soon have even bigger legal problems. The U.S-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests is urging the International Criminal Court to prosecute the Church for crimes against humanity.