"Employer's" liability

Posted: 13th December 2011

When a priest was alleged to have committed an act of abuse against a child many years ago, the first issue that had to be decided was whether the (now adult) child could bring a case against the diocese.
The claimant had been a resident of a children’s home operated by a Catholic charity. The priest visited the home but his activities were overseen by the local diocese, not the charity.
A claim was brought against the charity and the diocesan trustees on the ground that the priest’s position with regard to the latter was akin to that of an employee and the diocese (as ‘employer’) was therefore liable for the actions of the priest.
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The diocesan trustees argued that they should not bear liability. Unlike an employee, the priest had no contract of employment, was not subject to much supervision, received no wages and could not be dismissed.
However, the court considered that the priest’s role was effectively that of a person representing an employer, with full authority to do so. The diocese made it possible for him to do his work, even to the extent of providing robes to wear and premises from which to operate.
The fact that the nature of the relationship was not an ‘employer/employee’ relationship was not sufficient to absolve the diocese of responsibility for his actions.
The reasoning behind this case could be a cause for concern to organisations that use volunteer helpers and the like.