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English High Court rules Church can be sued for priests' abuse

The court has ruled that the Catholic Church is responsible for its priests – allowing it to be sued over sexual abuse.

Image: Mel Evans/AP

THE HIGH COURT of England and Wales has ruled that the Catholic Church is responsible for the behaviour and misconduct of the priests its appoints – opening the way for the church to be sued over the priests’ misconduct.

In a landmark ruling, the court ruled in favour of a woman who was sexually abused by a priest, and who was seeking to sue the Church – as the priest’s employer – for damages relating to his conduct.

Sky News’ Harriet Tolputt, on Twitter, said the Church is expected to appeal against the decision, and is likely to argue that it cannot be held accountable for the actions of autonomous priests.

The UK’s ruling follows a similar case in the United States where the Vatican was deemed to be responsible for the transfer of a priest, who was alleged to have abused children in his native Ireland, to Oregon.

In that case – John V. Doe v the Holy See – the victim of the abuse argued that his local archdiocese was “vicariously liable” for the abuse, and that the Holy See was vicariously liable for the negligent actions of the Archdiocese.

Last year the US Supreme Court denied the Holy See the right to appeal that case. The Vatican had argued that because the Holy See is an internationally recognised sovereign state, it cannot be prosecuted in another jurisdiction.

It is expected that the British appeal will make a similar argument.

The ruling does not have any immediate impact on Ireland, where almost all court action relating to clerical abuse is targeted only at the local diocese, archdiocese or clerical order.

In August of this year the Holy See published its documents relating to the Oregon case, where the victim alleges to have been abused by Fr Andrew Ronan, who was transferred from a parish in Ireland after being connected with the abuse of children there.

Among those documents are a letter written by Ronan in 1966, asking to be laicised “based on my repeated, admitted, documented, homosexual tendencies and acts against the vow of chastity and celebacy [sic] of the priesthood”.

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Gavan Reilly

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