London, England - A British court has ruled that Roman Catholic priests are equivalent to employees, a decision that could pave the way for victims of sexual abuse to win damages from the church.
Tuesday's ruling involved a 47-year-old woman who says she was sexually assaulted by the Rev. Wilfred Baldwin when she was living in a Catholic children's home in Portsmouth, in southern England. The woman, whose identity is protected by a court order, is pursuing a claim for damages against the church. Baldwin died in 2006.
The church argued that Baldwin was not an employee, an argument rejected by Justice Alistair MacDuff.
The Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust, the defendant in the case, was given permission to appeal the ruling.
The judge noted that Baldwin was appointed by and on behalf of the diocese to do their work.
"He had immense power handed to him by the defendants," the judge wrote in the ruling. "It was they who appointed him to the position of trust which (if the allegations be proved) he so abused."
The woman's case is being tried in December, when another judge will have to make a further decision about the church's liability, MacDuff said.
"I only have to decide whether the nature of the relationship is one to which vicarious liability may — I emphasize 'may' — attach," he wrote.
Vicarious liability is a legal doctrine that holds employers responsible for the actions of employees in some circumstances.
Elizabeth-Anne Gumbel, who represents the woman, said the issue for the trial judge would be whether the priest was acting in circumstances "closely connected" with his work as a priest.
Edward Faulks, a lawyer for the church, said the issue was a point of law and that the church was not seeking to shirk its responsibility in cases of sexual abuse.
Anne Lawrence, of the group Minister and Clergy Sexual Abuse Survivors, said she hoped that the ruling would lead to the settlement of "many hundreds of cases currently pending in courts."