Victoria’s highest court has ruled that the Catholic Church is vicariously liable for sexual abuse by a paedophile priest because he was a “servant of the diocese” whose role gave him the “power and intimacy” to access and abuse children. Source: The Guardian.
The decision by the Victorian Court of Appeal on Monday upholds the original landmark ruling, which, for the first time in Australia, found the Church is vicariously liable for the abuse of its priests.
The case involves a then five-year-old boy, known only as DP, who was abused by Fr Bryan Coffey at his parent’s home in Port Fairy during pastoral visits in 1971.
The critical issue in the case was whether the diocese and the current Bishop of Ballarat, Paul Bird, could be held liable for Coffey’s actions, despite the assistant priest not being a formal employee of the church.
DP’s lawyers, Ken Cush and Associates, successfully convinced the Victorian Supreme Court in late 2021 that, despite the lack of formal employment, the diocese was “all powerful in the management of clergy within a diocese” and that activities of an assistant parish priest were under the “direct control” of the priest, who reported to the bishop.
That left the Church vicariously liable for Coffey’s abuse, the court found.
The Church appealed against the decision. On Monday, however, the court of appeal upheld the previous ruling of vicarious liability.
DP was previously awarded $230,000. The court of appeal declined a cross-appeal seeking to increase the amount of damages.
The ABC reports that Coffey was convicted in the Ballarat County Court in February 1999 of multiple counts of sexual assault against other children, and was given a three-year suspended sentence. He died in 2013.
Victorian court upholds ruling finding Catholic church liable for sexual abuse by paedophile priest (By Christopher Knaus, The Guardian)
Win for victim-survivors as Vic Court of Appeal finds Catholic Church liable for sexual abuse by priests (ABC News)