Catholic Diocese of Australia found vicariously liable for clerical abuse | National Catholic Registry

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“This marks the first time in Australia a decision which places an attribution of responsibility on a bishop for the acts of his predatory priest or his assistant,” said lawyer Sangeeta Sharmin.

MELBOURNE, Australia — In a ruling believed to be the first of its kind in Australia, a judge found a Catholic diocese vicariously liable for clerical abuse.

A December 22 judgment by Justice John Forrest of the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne ruled that the Diocese of Ballarat was vicariously liable for the conduct of Father Bryan Coffey.

The Legal Information Institute defines vicarious liability as liability that a supervising party bears for the actionable conduct of a subordinate or associate, based on the relationship between the two parts.

Father Coffey, convicted of child abuse in 1999 and given a three-year suspended prison sentence, died in 2013.

Judge Forrest awarded a man identified only as “DP” damages of A$230,000 (about $165,000).

DP said he was sexually abused by Father Coffey at his parents’ home in Port Fairy, South West Victoria, in 1971 when he was five years old.

“Coffey assaulted DP as he claims; The diocese is vicariously liable for the assaults perpetrated by Coffey,” Judge Forrest said in his ruling.

Solicitors for the survivor, Ken Cush & Associates in Canberra, said the decision was a historic decision.

“This marks the first time in Australia a decision which places an attribution of responsibility on a bishop for the acts of his predatory priest or his assistant,” said lawyer Sangeeta Sharmin.

The judgment noted that the diocese had argued that “unless it is shown that a priest is an employee of the diocese, he cannot be vicariously liable.”

But the judge concluded that factors such as “the close nature of the relationship between the bishop, the diocese and the Catholic community” in Port Fairy and “the general control of the diocese over Coffey’s role and functions within St Patrick’s Parish” made the diocese vicariously liable for the priest’s conduct.

The judge also defined the relationship between DP, his family, Father Coffey, and the diocese as one of “intimacy and imported trust in the authority of the representative of Christ, personified by Coffey.”

The concept of vicarious liability has been invoked in legal actions against Catholic dioceses around the world, including in the case of disgraced former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

It was also mentioned in a dissenting opinion related to the European Court of Human Rights’ October 2021 ruling that the Vatican cannot be sued in local courts for the actions of clerical abusers because it enjoys sovereign immunity.

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