Here are the specifics of the current case, as reported in the Guardian, with comments in parenthesis by me:
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 has arisen after a woman, known as JGE, brought a case against the diocese of Portsmouth, alleging that one of its priests had abused her while she was a resident at a Catholic children's home, The Firs, in Waterlooville, Hampshire. The three-day hearing, which started yesterday, will not focus on the abuse claims but on the issue of corporate liability.
She claims Father Wilfrid Baldwin was able to gain access to The Firs and have contact with its residents through his work as a priest. According to her lawyers, Baldwin's duties establish a connection between the church 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." [Exactly: the fact that the relationship between a priest and bishop is in excess of that which is typical in a employer/employee relationship shows that this is a relationship of voluntary association - whereby one man freely chooses to obey another as an act of faith or spiritual benefit, as opposed to merely being employed to work].
It is also a historically legal fact that in the UK that priests from all traditions (but, especially in the Church of England) have been seen as office-holders rather than as employees. The status of clergy has traditionally been regulated by the internal canonical rules of the denomination concerned, rather than by the secular courts or employment tribunals. According to the Churches' Legislation Advisory Service (CLAS), English courts have traditionally held "that the functions of a minister of religion are vocational and spiritual in nature and therefore incompatible with the existence of a contract – on this view ministerial functions arise by way of a religious act such as ordination, not as the result of a contractual agreement between parties." In other words, there are legal precedents that point to the acceptance by British courts of the special nature of religious ministry, especially within the ordained priesthood.
It would seem, then, that there is ample precedent in law for accepting the fact that priests are not employed by the bishop or the Church - let alone, as some misguided secularists seem to believe, "the Vatican". It would be quite shocking, then, if a court effectively ruled that priests were employees of the Church and that, therefore, individual dioceses are liable for the criminal actions of clergymen. If this were to happen, one would have to ask "when does a priest 'clock off'?" For surely, even if a secular court rules that priests are employed by their bishop, it cannot be expected that employers are responsible for the actions of their staff outside working hours.
It must be pointed out that the hearing this week will not deal with the allegations of abuse brought against the dead (Baldwin died in 2006) Portsmouth priest, but will concentrate only on whether the Church has any 'corporate responsibility' in abuse or employment related cases. Of course, the status of lay people and certain priests who are directly employed by the Church, and who have entered into a contract of employment with a diocese or religious order, won't be under consideration at this hearing.