By John Bingham, Social Affairs Editor
A woman who alleges that she was sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest, who can never be brought to trial because he has died, was told she can bring legal action against the Church.
The woman, who cannot be named, was a resident in a children’s home in the 1970s when she says she was assaulted by Father Wilfred Baldwin.
It is claimed that he raped her in the robing room of a church on the day of her first Holy Communion and she is now seeking compensation from the Diocese of Portsmouth.
The diocese attempted to block the case at the High Court arguing that it could not be held legally responsible for actions of priests because they are “office holders” rather than employees.
Lawyers for the Church insisted that it was not seeking to avoid payouts but argued that the case could dramatically widen the meaning of “vicarious liability”.
They said it could have “disastrous” consequences for voluntary groups and even foster parents if they could now be held legally responsible for the actions of people over whom they had no direct control.
Yesterday, in a majority decision, three judges at the Court of Appeal in London dismissed the Church’s challenge.
But they also accepted that the ruling extends the scope of vicarious liability to relationships that are “akin to employment”.
Lord Justice Ward, who sat with Lord Justice Tomlinson and Lord Justice Davis, added: “This has ramifications in other areas of the law and to that extent this case does raise a matter of some public importance.”
The Revd Stephen Morgan, secretary of the trustees of Portsmouth Diocese said: “This ruling could not only affect the way the Church organises itself but also have a chilling effect on the environment in which charities and civil society organises.
“This could shrink the Big Society.”
He added: “It would be disastrous if, in seeking to provide redress for victims of harm, the law put intolerable new pressures on the voluntary sector.”
Mark Spragg, Consultant Solicitor at Keystone Law, said: “This decision widens the concept considerably under current English law.
“In the USA parents are becoming more responsible for their failure to supervise children and I can see this now becoming more prevalent in England.
“If it is foreseeable that a child can cause loss or damage to another citizen in a given situation it is now more likely that a parent will face a claim for damages.
“Insurance should be taken out.”