Victorian Catholic diocese found vicariously liable for child sexual abuse in landmark ruling

Ballarat Diocese Liable Abuse

Title: Victorian Catholic diocese found vicariously liable for child sexual abuse in landmark ruling
Author: Christopher Knaus
Publisher: The Guardian
Date: 05JAN2022
Church’s argument that it was not responsible for the abuse was rejected and described as ‘affront to common sense’.

The Catholic church’s failed attempt to argue it was not responsible for a priest’s abuse of a five-year-old, because it took place during after-hours “social” visits, has been slammed as “ruthless” by the survivor and an “affront to common sense” by a judge.

Last month the Victorian supreme court handed down a judgment finding the current diocese of Ballarat was vicariously liable for the abuse of the boy, who cannot be named, by Father Bryan Coffey in Port Fairy in the early 1970s.

The survivor’s lawyers, Ken Cush & Associates, say the ruling is a landmark win that will help countless other survivors.

Coffey abused the boy during pastoral care visits to his home on two occasions in 1971.

The critical issue in the case was whether Coffey, an assistant parish priest, could be considered a formal employee of the diocese at the time, thereby making it vicariously liable for his actions.

The church argued that Coffey was not a formal employee and so it could not be held liable for his actions.

It also said Coffey’s home visits were “social outings” not connected to his work for the church.

The judge in the case, Justice Jack Forrest, described the suggestion as “sheer nonsense”.

“It is, in my view, both inconceivable and an affront to common sense to suggest (as the Diocese put it) that these visits to parishioners’ houses and [the survivor’s] home were unconnected with Coffey’s pastoral role within the Church and merely social outings separate to his role as an assistant priest,” he said.

The court found the abuse occurred and that the diocese was vicariously liable for Coffey’s actions.

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