Catholic Church fighting back against claims it is vicariously liable for 1971 sexual abuse of five-year-old boy by Ballarat Catholic priest

Sky News Australia [AU]

March 13, 2024

By Amy Roulston

The Catholic Church is pushing back against the High Court of Australia’s finding that it was vicariously liable for the 1971 sexual abuse of a five-year-old boy committed by a Ballarat priest.

The victim, who was brought up in a strict Catholic family, was found to have been sexually assaulted by Father Bryan Coffey at the home of his parents in Port Fairy in 1971.

Coffey was the assistant priest and taught at the victim’s primary school, Saint Patrick’s Catholic Parish Primary in Ballarat.

The presiding judge found the Diocese of Ballarat vicariously liable for the two 1971 sexual assaults.

The victim was awarded $230,000 in damages largely due to the psychological injuries, including complex post-traumatic stress disorder, that he sustained as a result of the abuse.

On Thursday, the Church began its legal battle in the High Court of Australia in Canberra, reiterating its previous defence that Coffey was not “employed” by the Catholic church and that an employer-employee relationship is necessary for them to be held liable.

The judge has previously challenged this claim, arguing that the Diocese was “all powerful in the management of clergy within a diocese” and that the activities of an assistant parish priest were under the “direct control” of the priest, who reported to the Bishop.

The court found that an employer-employee relationship was not required as Coffey was “closely tied” with the Church and was representing the Catholic Church when engaging in his pastoral role.

Today’s case will see the Church fight back against previous rulings, arguing that the employment requirement not be abandoned.