THE Catholic church will today argue that it is not responsible for the sexual abuse of a Waterlooville woman by one of its own priests.
If they succeed it means the church will avoid paying any compensation to all victims of sexual abuse by priests.
The issue has arisen in a civil action brought by the woman, who can only be identified as Miss JGE , who claims she was abused in a children’s home run by the church.
JGE was admitted to The Firs in Waterlooville, run by an order of nuns, the English Province of Our Lady of Charity, in May 1970, aged seven.
She alleges that she was sexually abused by Father Wilfred Baldwin, a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth, who died in 2006.
It is believed that at the time of the alleged abuse he was ‘vocations director’ of the diocese and regularly visited The Firs, where he had unsupervised access to the children.
JGE alleges that during these visits Father Baldwin sexually abused her both within the home, in a private sitting room set aside for visitors, and in the vestry of the adjoining church of St Michael and All Angels.
Her allegations arose in May 2006 after police came ‘cold calling’ on her and others who they suspected may have been abused, while investigating Father Baldwin’s activities after receiving complaints.
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 church claims that it is not responsible for the sexual abuse committed by Father Baldwin and it is this point which the three-day hearing will settle. Mr Justice Alistair MacDuff’s decision will then provide guidance for future such trials.
The substantive trial is scheduled for 10 days beginning 5 December 2011.
There have been previous findings in the House of Lords and the Court of Appeal relating to other church organisations, in which the courts have found that church ministers should be treated as employees of the church.
But there has been no judgment yet on 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.
Tracey Emmott, of Emott Snell, a specialist in working with sexual abuse claims who is managing the case, said: ‘The most astonishing point to me to emerge from this tragic and sordid case is that the Catholic church is claiming that it isn’t legally responsible for the behaviour of its own priest.
‘They claim that the relationship between the bishop of the diocese and the parish priest in question does not amount to anything akin to a relationship of employment, and therefore there cannot be any ‘vicarious liability’ for the priest’s acts.
‘That is to say, whatever sexual abuse their priests might commit, it is not their responsibility. They are absolved of blame.
‘We need to show that, while Father Baldwin wasn’t strictly an employee of the church, he was acting on the bishop’s behalf and that the bishop clearly had a degree of control over his activities.
‘The consequence of the Catholic church winning the point is that they will be able to avoid compensating all victims of sexual abuse by priests, whether in the past or in the future.
‘No other organisation has such immunity’.
The three-day trial is taking place at the Royal Courts of Justice in London.