The High Court in the United Kingdom ruled yesterday that the Catholic Church can be liable for sexual abuse committed by its priests. This ruling, for which we are very grateful, will give great hope to survivors of sexual abuse by clergy in the United Kingdom.
The High Court’s decision allows the case against the Diocese of Portsmouth that we wrote about this summer to move to trial. The case involves a woman known as “Miss E” who says she was sexually abused by Father Wilfred Baldwin at The Firs, a children’s home in Waterlooville. The Firs was run by nuns from the English Province of Our Lady of Charity. Fr. Baldwin, who at the time was the vocations director of the Diocese of Portsmouth, visited the Firs home often. He was allowed unsupervised access to children and abused Miss E at the home and at St. Michael Sacred Heart, which adjoins the home.
The Court’s decision to hold the Diocese of Portsmouth vicariously liable for the actions of its priest validates this survivor and her courage in coming forward about the abuse that she suffered. We commend this brave survivor, and because of her standing up and speaking out, other survivors in the UK will have an opportunity to seek justice for abuse they suffered at the hands of priests and other religious.
Whether or not the Catholic Church or a religious institution can be held vicariously liable had not previously been considered by the High Court in the United Kingdom. This ruling sets an influential precedent and provides a robust framework for future clergy abuse cases seeking to hold the Church liable. We are encouraged by the Court’s understanding of responsibility in this case and optimistic that this survivor and others will soon have their days in court.
My colleague, Ann Olivarius, writes about the case in more detail here.