Bishop has vicarious liability for actions of priest
COURT OF APPEAL OF ENGLAND AND WALES JUDGMENT:JGE -v- Trustees of Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust
Neutral Citation Number EWCA Civ 938
Court of Appeal (Civil Division) of England and Wales
Judgment was delivered by Lord Justice Ward on July 12th, 2012; Lord Justice Davis concurring; Lord Justice Tomlinson dissenting.
Although a priest is not an “employee” of a bishop, the relationship between a priest and his bishop is sufficiently close to that of an employee to mean the Bishop of Portsmouth was vicariously liable for the actions of a priest of the diocese who abused a child.
The claimant in the case was born in 1963 and when she was six and a half spent two years in a children’s home run by nuns. Fr Wilfred Baldwin, the parish priest, regularly visited the children’s home where she alleged he abused her. She also claimed he raped her numerous times, including the day of her First Communion. She claimed the trustees of the diocese, who were the legal entity representing the Catholic church and the bishop, were vicariously liable, as the acts committed were connected with his carrying out his duties as a priest.
The trustees, on behalf of the bishop, said they never operated or managed the parish, as all the duties associated with it were carried out by the parish priest. It was also denied he was parish priest at the time; the trustees stated he was instead vocations director in the diocese. These issues were not pursued in this case.
The trustees said neither they nor the bishop had any power to remove Fr Baldwin from the priesthood or from his office against his will, other than in accordance with canon law.
The case therefore concerned the relationship between the priest and the church, and this was tried as a preliminary issue. The claimant won in the High Court and this was appealed to the Court of Appeal.
There was extensive exposition to the court of the relationship between a priest, his bishop and the church under canon law. Canon lawyers for both the plaintiff and the defendants agreed there were no terms or conditions to a priest’s appointment other than those set out under canon law; while the bishop appointed the priest, he has no power of dismissal, which has to be effected through the church in Rome; the priest did not receive financial support from the diocese, but from the parish; the bishop must exercise vigilance over the priest and the priest owes the bishop reverence and obedience, but he exercises his ministry as co-operator and collaborator.