The Catholic Church’s unsuccessful attempt to argue that it was not responsible for a priest’s abuse of a five-year-old, because it took place during after-hours “social” visits , was described as “ruthless” by the survivor and an “affront to common sense” by a judge.
Last month, the Supreme Court of Victoria rendered a judgment the finding that the current Diocese of Ballarat was vicariously responsible for the mistreatment of the boy, who cannot be named, by Father Bryan Coffey in Port Fairy in the early 1970s.
Lawyers for the survivor, Ken Cush & Associates, say the ruling is a historic victory that will help countless others.
Coffey abused the boy during pastoral visits to his home on two separate occasions in 1971.
The critical question in the case was whether Coffey, a deputy pastor, could be considered an official employee of the diocese at the time, thus making him vicariously liable for his actions.
The church argued that Coffey was not a formal employee and therefore could not be held accountable for his actions.
He also said that Coffey’s home visits were “social outings” unrelated to his work for the church.
The judge in the case, Judge Jack Forrest, called the suggestion “sheer nonsense.”
“It is, in my opinion, both inconceivable and an affront to common sense to suggest (as the diocese has said) that these visits to the houses of parishioners and [the survivor’s] the house had no connection with Coffey’s pastoral role in the Church and were simply social outings separate from his role as an assistant priest, ”he said.
The court found that the abuse had occurred and that the diocese was vicariously liable for Coffey’s actions.
Forrest discovered that Coffey was not a formal employee of the church, given the absence of any formal work contracts or arrangements, and the lack of immediate control or supervision by the diocese of his work.
But he found that the diocese was still vicariously responsible for the abuse due to the close nature of the relationship between the bishop, the diocese, and the Catholic community of Port Fairy; the general control of the diocese over the role and duties of Coffey; and the fact that Coffey had a pastoral role in the town, which included home visitation.
The court concluded that the relationship between the survivor, his family, Coffey and the diocese was one of “intimacy and trust imported into the authority of the representative of Christ, personified by Coffey.”
“I am also pleased that Coffey’s role as a priest under the leadership of the diocese has placed him in a position of power and privacy vis-à-vis [the survivor] which allowed him to benefit [the survivor] when he was alone, as he did with other boys, ”he said.
Forrest concluded that the survivor had not proven negligence on the part of the diocese, as there was no evidence that he had actual knowledge of Coffey’s misconduct or any evidence that would allow inference that the diocese should have known of Coffey’s inclinations.
The court awarded the survivor $ 230,000.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, the survivor said the church’s approach to the case caused him great distress.
“They weren’t giving anything,” he said. “They wanted to drag me through this, and they dragged me through this.”
He had been cross-examined for three days and forced to relive painful memories, including the sudden death of both his parents in a car crash in 1985, in a way he felt was unrelated to the case.
The argument that the home visitations were unrelated to Coffey’s priestly work, the survivor said, was “ruthless.”
“It really upset me, because you know I’ve always learned that a priest is a priest, 24 hours a day,” he said. “We always had priests and nuns visiting the house, and the nuns never went out of their way when they came to the house. The priest was never stripped of his clerical bond when he visited the house.
“They just tried to argue to get by.”
Ken Cush & Associates special advocate Sangeeta Sharmin said the ruling, for the first time, provided binding authority that allowed a diocese to be vicariously liable for abuses committed by its priests.
“This verdict, along with the courage our client has shown in fighting for the rights of this five-year-old version of himself, will help countless more victims of religious abuse in the future,” he said. she declared.
“As it should be, because dioceses must take responsibility for the men they have placed in these communities, have asked their congregations and donors to trust, and whom people have turned to for spiritual guidance.
“The argument can no longer be used as a shield by Catholic institutions, and our efforts to give a voice to victims of abuse ultimately resulted in this landmark decision.”
The church and office of the current Bishop of Ballarat, Paul Bird, have been contacted for a response.
It is not known if the church will appeal.