The UK’s high court heard the case of a woman this month, “JGE,” who was six years old when she was sexually abused by a priest at a children’s home in Portsmouth, England. “JGE” was abused by Father Wilfred Baldwin, a priest in the Diocese of Portsmouth, who visited Firs children’s home regularly. In addition to her negligence claim against the nuns who ran Firs, “JGE” and her attorneys say that Fr. Baldwin was working as a priest in the Diocese, so the Diocese is also responsible.
At the high court, the Diocese of Portsmouth boldly argued that it is not responsible for its priests’ actions. Its priests are not employees of the Diocese, it insisted, and therefore the Diocese should not be liable to victims of clergy sexual abuse. Essentially, the Diocese of Portsmouth is arguing that the Bishop, as the leader of the Diocese, is not the employer of the priests who work in the Diocese and therefore, the Diocese is not vicariously liable for its priests’ actions.
While Church leaders have presented this argument in previous abuse cases worldwide, this is a first for a Diocese in a high court proceeding and it could set a dangerous precedent. Unfortunately, the case has received little media attention in the UK and virtually no coverage in the United States.
The Diocese’s argument is absurd when one considers that the Diocese provides its priests a stipend or salary, housing, food, a uniform, and instructs priests to obey its policies and procedures or risk forced termination. While the Diocese may argue that priests are “called” to the priesthood and enter voluntarily, virtually every aspect of their roles and duties in the Diocese point to priests being employed by the Bishop and ergo, employees of the Diocese since even the Diocese concedes that the Bishop is in charge. I don’t care if you are Catholic, Lutheran, Atheist or Agnostic; regardless of your religious beliefs, most of us can agree that just as rights come with responsibilities, we are responsible for our actions.
Beyond the surface of the Diocese’s denial is the even more astonishing, deeper implication of its position. For a religion that preaches compassion and forgiveness, how can it be an option to deny it was wrong only to blame others while survivors of sexual abuse suffer in silence? More than a need for monetary rewards, survivors with whom I’ve worked bravely ask the Church to acknowledge the pain and hurt that survivors endure, to recognize and admit that it made mistakes, to commit to aid current abuse survivors through therapy, and finally to change its policies in a move of true compassion for the children of tomorrow.