THE Catholic church has denied responsibility for the sexual abuse of a Waterlooville woman by one of its own priests.
The issue of responsibility arose after the woman, who can only be identified as Miss E, brought a civil action against the church.
She claims she was abused in a children’s home run by the church and therefore the church has ‘vicarious liability’.
But the church claims it cannot be held responsible because the priest was not an ‘employee’.
If the church wins the argument it means it will avoid paying any compensation to all victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Miss E was admitted to The Firs in Waterlooville, run by an order of nuns, in May 1970, aged seven.
She alleges 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 children.
Miss E 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.
But Lord Edward Faulkes, defending the church, said: ‘Although the claimant was in a children’s home the parish was one of many in the diocese so it’s not quite the same situation as a school looking after young children and entrusting a specific role to a warden.’
The court heard from Monsignor Gordon Read, who gave evidence for the church.
He said: ‘In my opinion neither the bishop nor the priest would regard their relationship as having legal consequences.’
The woman’s allegations arose in May 2006 when police contacted people who had stayed at the home after others reported they had been abused by Father Baldwin.
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 Miss E as he was a Catholic priest working in the Portsmouth diocese.
The church says that it is not responsible for the sexual abuse committed by Father Baldwin and it is this point which the hearing, which started yesterday at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, will settle.
Mr Justice Alistair MacDuff’s decision, which is expected in a couple of months, will then provide guidance for future such trials.
Miss E’s case against the church is scheduled for a 10-day trial in December, but if she loses this argument that will not take place.
If upheld, the court will rule that the church is legally responsible for sexual abuse committed by its priests.
This is the first time this point is being tested in a court of law.
Tracey Emmott, of Emott Snell, a specialist in working with sexual abuse claims who is managing the case, said: ‘The consequence of the Catholic church winning the point is that it 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.’