English High Court Rules Catholic Priest Is Diocesan Employee, Raises Possibility of Vicarious Liability for Clergy Sex Abuse

A judge on the High Court of England and Wales ruled this week that a Catholic priest qualified as an employee of his diocese, thus exposing the diocese to vicarious liability for clergy sex abuse. The decision came in a case brought by a woman who claims that a priest abused her when she was a child. Although the priest did not have an employment contract with the diocese, the judge ruled, the diocese trained him, appointed him to his position, and held him out to the public as its representative. It provided “the premises, the pulpit, and the clerical robes” and sent the priest out into the community.

This is apparently the first time a court in the UK has held a priest to be an employee of his diocese. Dioceses usually lack day-to-day supervisory authority over priests; for this reason, courts often hold that priests are not employees, but independent contractors. The plaintiff’s victory may be less valuable than it appears, however. Vicarious liability exists where the employee commits torts while acting within the scope of his employment, and assaulting parishioners obviously falls outside a priest’s job description. The judge gave the diocese extended leave to appeal the decision. – MLM

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