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High Court holds church can be vicariously liable for priest`s torts

10 November 2011 #Employment

It was decided in JGE v English Province of Our Lady of Charity that the Catholic Church could be found to be vicariously liable for the actions of a priest.  Interestingly, this arose despite the fact that the relationship between the Church and a priest is often saidto not be ‘akin to employment’.

The claimant alleged that a priest had sexually abused her while she was a resident of a children’s home operated and managed by a religious order of nuns.  The claimant brought proceedings against the Diocese on the basis that it was vicariously liable for the priest’s actions.  However, the Diocese challenged that assumption of the alleged employment relationship and refused to concede that it would be liable, as if it were the priest`s employer.

The High Court examined the basis on which vicarious liability is imposed.  It agreed that this was not a straightforward ‘akin to employment’ relationship. They arrived at this decision due a number of factors, such as the lack of a right for the church to dismiss, the church`s limited control or supervision over the way the priest fulfilled his role, and the lack of wages or a formal contract.

However, the High Court stated that there was still a close connection between the priest`s (alleged) torts and his position.  The Diocese appointed him in order to do its work for the benefit of the church.  He was given the full authority of the Diocese to fulfil that role, was provided with the premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes, was directed into the community with that full authority and was given free rein to act as representative of the church.

Under these circumstances, the Court considered it reasonable that the Diocese be held responsible for his actions.  Therefore the claim was allowed to proceed.

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