London High Court: Bishops Can Be Held Liable for Priests

Portsmouth Prelate Notes ‘Clear Problems’ With Ruling

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PORTSMOUTH, England, NOV. 10, 2011 ( The bishop of Portsmouth is pointing out «clear problems» with a High Court ruling this week that a bishop can be automatically liable for the actions of a priest simply by virtue of the fact that he or one of his predecessors appointed the priest.

Bishop Crispian Hollis published a statement today in response to Tuesday’s Hight Court decision, which for the first time defined in British law the relationship of a priest to his bishop as similar to that of an employee to an employer.

The Court took up the question of the nature of the diocese’s or bishop’s relationship with a priest as a preliminary issue in a case of alleged sexual abuse.

Bishop Hollis’ statement first clarified the situation of the case itself, in which a 47-year-old woman, known as JGE, alleges she was abused by Father Wilf Baldwin while she was a resident at a children’s home.

The bishop clarified, however, that the diocese is defending the case because the priest was based at the other end of the diocese at the time JGE was a resident of the home.

«The Diocese does not therefore accept the Claimant’s allegations against Father Baldwin,» he wrote. «The Court will have to reach its own conclusion if and when the main issue is heard, which is unlikely to be before next year.»

Bishop Hollis further observed, «The Claimant has the benefit of a court order whereby she cannot be identified; unfortunately, the same consideration has not been extended to Father Baldwin, who was a priest of unblemished character until these allegations were made shortly before his death and who had no opportunity to respond to the allegations made against him.»

No other organization

Bishop Hollis’ statement then turned to the preliminary issue of the bishop’s liability for the actions of his priests, the issue that was ruled upon Tuesday.

«I would like to make it clear that the Diocese was not seeking to evade responsibility for the actions of its priests,» he said. «The Diocese accepts that where a Bishop has, for example, failed to prevent a priest from committing an act of wrongdoing, he will be liable in negligence. However, this case was not concerned with negligence, it was concerned with whether a Bishop should be automatically liable for the actions of a priest simply by virtue of the fact that he or one of his predecessors appointed the priest. The Diocese is aware of no other organization which can be held liable for the actions of its office holders in this way.»

Bishop Hollis thus stated that the there are «clear problems with the judgment of the High Court in this case,» but that the diocese has not made a decision on whether to appeal. 

«A decision will be taken following receipt of legal advice,» he said, «and bearing in mind the sensitivities of these issues for those who have suffered abuse perpetrated by a Catholic priest.»

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