The church in the dock

Thu, Jul 26, 2012, 01:00

THE THREE-TO-SIX-YEAR jail term imposed in Philadelphia on Monsignor William Lynn for covering up child abuse marks an important first and a watershed moment for the Catholic Church, not only in the US but internationally. A court’s willingness for the first time to punish not only priestly abusers, but those who sheltered them, will reverberate through the church, and not least in Ireland where gardaí are still involved in investigating possible charges arising from the Murphy and Ryan reports. The sentence also comes only days after another landmark ruling in the UK courts which has extended church liability for the actions of priests and which is likely also to have important implications for other voluntary organisations.

The prosecution of Lynn, found guilty in June of child endangerment after a trial which exposed efforts over decades by his Philadelphia archdiocese to play down accusations of child sexual abuse and avoid scandal, echoes that of Bishop Pierre Pican of Bayeux-Lisieux in 2010. He received only a suspended three-month term, but, notoriously, was privately praised by the Vatican, for not handing over an abuser-priest to the police.

Lynn, who served as secretary for 800 clergy to the 1.5 million-strong archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, recommending priest assignments and investigating abuse complaints, will appeal. The archdiocese responded to what it complained was an “over-harsh” sentence with assurances that its procedures for protecting children had improved significantly in the decade since the offences occurred.

Meanwhile the court of appeal in London a fortnight ago upheld a lower court’s ruling that the church can be held liable for the actions of priests. The Portsmouth diocese had appealed a decision that found a priest had a relationship akin to an employee relationship to his bishop, and that the diocese was therefore “vicariously liable” for his actions. In his conclusions, Lord Justice Ward ruled that the priest in question, the late Father Wilfred Baldwin who allegedly abused a girl in a Hampshire children’s home, “may not quite match every facet of being an employee but in my judgment he is very close to it indeed.” He acknowledged the judgment significantly “widened the scope of vicarious liability”.

Similar issues are raised in an ongoing case currently before the supreme court in London – a dispute between the Middlesbrough diocese and the De La Salle order of Christian Brothers over to what extent each is liable for compensation to 170 victims of admitted sexual abuse in St William’s boys home in Yorkshire between 1960 and 1992. The brothers were in day-to-day charge of the home. A decision is expected in October.

All three cases raise uncomfortable issues for the church in addressing how, quite properly, it, and its priests/employees, will be held to account legally .These and other cases all involve uphill battles in which the church has used all legal means at its disposal (including internationally the dubious notion of “sovereign immunity”) to fend off accountability. That is its right, but, particularly to victims, appears a strange form of contrition.

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