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Criminal Law: Catholic Church to take legal responsibility for crimes of priests

In a recent case concerning clerical sexual abuse, a high court judge has paved the way for the Catholic Church to take legal responsibility for the actions of their priests, in the same way as a company would for its employees.

The ruling means that in future, victims of sexual abuse by clergy members will find it easier to bring claims against the Church as a whole.

A woman, known as JGE, claimed to have been sexually abused when she was six years old by a priest, Father Wilfred Baldwin, who regularly visited the children's home where she lived in Portsmouth.

The woman's lawyers claimed that the nuns who ran the home were negligent and in breach of duty and that the diocese was liable for the priest's alleged abuse since he was, essentially, employed by the diocese.

The judge, Mr Justice Macduff, ruled in favour of JGE, saying that although the priest was not technically employed by the church and had no formal contract, there were "crucial features" that made the church responsible.

He said: "He [Baldwin] was provided with the premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes. He was directed into the community with that full authority and was given free rein to act as a representative of the church. He had been trained and ordained for the purpose. He had immense power handed to him by the defendants [the trustees of the Roman Catholic diocesan trust]. It was they who appointed him to the position of trust, which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused."

The defendants, the Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust, have been given extended leave to appeal the decision.

Their lawyer, Lord Faulks QC, claimed that the church was not attempting to shrug off responsibility for the wrongdoing of priests and that is "takes sexual abuse extremely seriously and it is entirely concerned to eradicate it."

However, the church has never before had to define the relationship between itself and its priests as one of employment.

Lord Faulks said: "This case has been brought as a point of law that has never been decided."

JGE, while pleased that the judge ruled in her favour, said: "I'm fuming. I've had no support from the church whatsoever. Nobody has contacted me. They are ignoring victims. It feels like being on a rack, turning the screws tighter and tighter, over hot coals."

Related links:
Read more on the story (The Guardian)
Abuse and domestic violence: where to get help (FindLaw)
Find local criminal solicitors throughout the UK (FindLaw)