Diocese of Portsmouth vicariously liable for sexual abuse committed by one of its Priests

Posted by Malcolm Johnson on

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The Claimant claimed damages for personal injury that she suffered when she was sexually abused by a priest, during a time when she was resident at the Firs Children Home in Hampshire between May 1970 and May 1972.

The home was operated and managed by a religious order of nuns, the First Defendants.

At first instance, Mr Justice Macduff found for the Claimant on the issue of whether the Diocese was vicariously liable for the abuse committed by the priest. The Defendant appealed. Lord Justice Ward and Lord Justice Davis dismissed the appeal, but Lord Justice Tomlinson said that he would allow it. Ward LJ described the "sacred duty" of a priest and gave the example of  a priest who was called upon to administer last rites to a parishioner.

He said:

"To perform this sacred duty he jumps on his battered old bicycle and pedals furiously down the hill to attend his ailing parishioner. Alas he does so negligently, fails to observe another of his flock on a controlled pedestrian crossing. She is knocked down and suffers injury. The priest was clearly in the course of doing what he was appointed to do. There is no problem about applying stage 2 of the test. But he has taken a vow of poverty. He is not himself insured. But the parish is. Are we really having to conclude that his bishop and/or the diocesan trust are not vicariously liable because he is not employed or in a relationship akin to employment? Are we to say he is simply an office holder personally responsible for the manner in which he conducts his office. I think not." 

The Court of Appeal admitted that they found the case difficult, but refused permission to the Defendant to appeal to the Supreme Court. They said that the Supreme Court were already considering the issue of vicarious liability in another case, Various Claimants v The Catholic Child Welfare Society and the Institute of Brothers of the Christian Schools & ors, and they were unsure whether this was a case that was suitable for that court. However, it remains open to the Supreme Court to allow the Defendant permission to appeal.

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Malcolm is an Senior Associate in our London office, with nearly twenty years' experience.

Malcolm Johnson
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