Child sexual abuse – Clergy – Duty of care – Vicarious liability

MAGA (by his litigation friend the Official Solicitor) v Trustees of the Birmingham Archdiocese of the Roman Catholic Church: CA (Civ Div) (Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Longmore, Lady Justice Smith): 16 March 2010

The appellant (M) appealed against a decision ([2009] EWHC 780 (QB)) dismissing his claim against the respondent archdiocese for damages for sexual abuse to which he claimed to have been subjected when he was 12 or 13.

The judge had found that M had been sexually abused on many occasions by a Catholic priest (C); that his relationship with C had started while he was admiring C’s car; that C had invited him to attend the church disco, which he did on a number of occasions; that the discos were open to all young people in the area, whether or not they were Roman Catholics (M was not); that C had paid him for cleaning his car and doing small jobs in the presbytery; that C had not involved him in the activities of the church itself but instead had cultivated him for the purpose of sexual abuse; and that most of the abuse had occurred in the presbytery. The judge concluded, however, that the archdiocese was not vicariously liable for the sexual abuse perpetrated by C. M argued that, irrespective of whether the archdiocese had acted in a blameworthy way, it was responsible for the wrongful acts complained of.

Held: There were a number of factors which, taken together, showed that there was a sufficiently close connection between C’s employment as priest at the church and the abuse which he had inflicted on M to render it fair and just to impose vicarious liability for the abuse on his employer, namely the archdiocese, Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd [2001] UKHL 22, [2002] 1 AC 215 applied. First, C was normally dressed in clerical garb and was so dressed when he first met M. At the very least, that factor set the scene. A priest had a special role, which involved trust and responsibility in a more general way even than a teacher, a doctor or a nurse. It was C’s employment as a priest by the archdiocese which enabled him, indeed was intended to enable him, to hold himself out as having such a role and such authority. Second, C’s functions as a priest included a duty to evangelise or to bring the gospel to other people. Accordingly, he was ostensibly performing his duty as a priest employed by the archdiocese by getting to know M. Third, given that M was aged 12 or 13 when his association with C started, it was significant that C was given a special responsibility for youth work at the church. It underlined the point that, when getting to know and effectively ‘grooming’ M, C was ostensibly carrying out one of his specifically assigned functions in the church. Fourth, C was able to develop his relationship with M by inviting him to a disco which was on church premises and which he organised as a priest at the church. Thus, M had been drawn into the relationship through the medium of a church-organised function carried on in church premises by C, a priest at the church. Fifth, the relationship was further developed when C got M to clear up after discos. That work, on church premises at the request of a priest at the church, led M to do other work for C. Thus, C’s role as priest in the archdiocese gave him the status and opportunity to draw M further into his sexually abusive orbit by ostensibly respectable means connected with his employment as a priest at the church. Sixth, the fact that M was working at the request of a priest on premises, namely the presbytery, owned by the priest’s archdiocese, adjoining the church where the priest worked, and which were lived in by the priest, was relevant to the issue of vicarious liability for the first three reasons mentioned above, namely moral authority, evangelisation and youth work. Seventh, the opportunity to spend time alone with M, especially in the presbytery, had arisen from C’s role as a priest employed as such by the archdiocese, Jacobi v Griffiths [1999] 174 DLR (4th) 71 and Bazley v Curry [1999] 174 DLR (4th) 45 Sup Ct (Can) considered.

Appeal allowed, cross-appeal dismissed.

Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC, Justin Levinson (instructed by Clifton Ingram) for the appellant; Edward Faulks QC, Nicholas Fewtrell (instructed by Hill Dickinson) for the respondent.