A lot of stories have slipped by in the slipstream of the NOTW scandal, largely unnoticed by the media. One of these stories (covered by Channel 4, the Guardian and local papers) has potentially huge ramifications for sex abuse claims against the Catholic Church.
At present the Roman Catholic church's is testing its liability for the wrongdoings of its priests. According to theGuardian, Mr Justice MacDuff has been asked to decide if the relationship between a bishop and a priest is similar to that between employers and their staff.
The case relates to an abuse claim being brought against the diocese of Portsmouth. A woman has alleged that one of its priests had abused her while she was a resident at a Catholic children's home, The Firs, in Waterlooville, Hampshire. A trial in respect of these claims is scheduled to take place in December.
The hearing does not focus on the abuse claims but on the issue of corporate liability.
The basis of the case against the diocese is that Father Wilfrid Baldwin was able to gain access to The Firs and have contact with its residents through his work as a priest. These duties establish a connection between the diocese and the priest.
"In effect, priests are carrying out their working assigned to them by their bishop and furthering the cause of the diocese," Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel QC, counsel for the woman, argued. "As the correspondence between Father Baldwin and his bishop demonstrates, he was dependent on the bishop to assign him a post and to control when he moved from one post to another and even to control when he was permitted to retire. The degree of control was, if anything, in excess of that in the typical employer/employee relationship."
Lawyers for the alleged victim say it is the first time a court has been asked to rule on whether the "relationship between a Catholic priest and his bishop is akin to an employment relationship".
If the answer is "no" there would be "no circumstances where the Roman Catholic church is liable for the actions of one of its priests whether deliberate or careless and however closely connected those actions were to the role of priest".
Gumbel told the judge this would place the church "in a unique position as far as avoiding responsibility for the acts or omissions of any priest working within the church organisation in whatever role".
The diocese denies it is vicariously liable and is defending itself against the claim. A ruling in its favour would mean the church could avoid paying compensation to victims of clerical sexual abuse.
And it is not just sexual abuse. If the court rules that there was no employment relationship between a priest and his diocese then the diocese could be immune from liability from any act perpetrated by a priest in the course of his normal duties.
Given the that some bishops seemed to move heaven and earth to cover up the gross criminal acts of some priests complicity a decision in their favour would be an utter disgrace.