A HIGH Court Judge has ruled against the Catholic church in a row over whether it can be held responsible 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 in a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London earlier this year the church claimed it could not be held responsible because the priest was not an ‘employee’.
Today, in the first hearing of its kind, Mr Justice Alistair MacDuffs ruled that the church is legally responsible for sexual abuse committed by its priests.
His decision is expected to provide further guidance for such trials in the future.
If the church had won the argument it would have meant it could 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 Sacred Heart.
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.
Miss E’s case against the church was scheduled for a 10-day trial in December but that has now been put back to next year.
If she had lost this argument the trial would have not taken place.
This was the first time this point has been 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: ‘There seems to be a significant discrepancy between the position claimed by the Catholic church and the way it conducts its defence when legal proceedings are brought.
‘Whilst the church appears to pay lip service to the idea of transparency in confronting the ugly and sordid activities of some of its clergy, its lawyers are attempting to use every cynical loop hole open to them to avoid accepting responsibility.
‘I find it astonishing that the Catholic church can actually claim that it has no interest in or responsibility for the sexual degradations committed against children by its own clergy.’
It is known that several others who claim abuse at the hands of Father Baldwin were also considering bringing civil claims against the church, depending on the outcome of this case.