A UK court ruled [judgment text] Tuesday that Catholic priests qualify as employees, meaning that the Catholic church could be held liable for sexual abuse by clergy members [JURIST news archive]. A 47-year-old woman filed suit against the Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust [church website] claiming that she was sexually abused by the Reverend Wilfred Baldwin during her childhood in a Catholic children's home. The diocese argued that they could not be held liable because Baldwin was not an employee, but Judge Alistair MacDuff rejected that argument:
[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. It was they who appointed him to the position of trust which (if the allegations can be proved) he so abused.The case will be tried next month when another judge will decide whether the church is liable under the doctrine of vicarious liability, in which employers can be held culpable for the illicit behavior of their employees.
Clergy abuse has become a contentious legal issue in recent years, as the Vatican has come under intense scrutiny related to allegations of sexual abuse of children by local church officials. In September, Amnesty International [advocacy website] claimed [JURIST report] that clergy members' abuse of Irish children amounted to torture. The report, titled In Plain Sight [text, PDF] called special attention to "people in positions of power" who "ignore their responsibility to act." Also in September, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) [advocacy website] filed a complaint [JURIST report] with the International Criminal Court (ICC) [official website] against Vatican officials, including Pope Benedict XVI, for widespread sexual abuse and subsequent concealment of thousands of incidents. In February 2010, the Vatican unveiled church procedures [JURIST report] for dealing with sexual abuse cases, titled the "Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations", which set up a multi-tiered system of enforcement, including local bishops and the Pope himself. Since 2007, the Church has settled over 500 cases [JURIST news archive] of clergy abuse in the U.S. alone, totaling more than $900 million.