High Court battle set to begin over liability of Catholic Church for 1971 child sexual abuse in regional Victoria

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

March 13, 2024

By Elizabeth Byrne

  • In short: The High Court will hear a challenge to the Catholic Church’s liability over the abuse of a five-year-old boy by an assistant priest in regional Victoria in 1971.
  • Lower courts have accepted that on the balance of probabilities, Father Brian Coffey assaulted the boy, but the Catholic Church is challenging its liability for the abuse.
  • What’s next? The court will hear the case today.

The Catholic Church will launch a High Court battle today, over whether it was vicariously liable for the actions of an assistant priest who sexually abused a five-year-old boy in 1971.

The offences happened in the boy’s home at Port Fairy soon after he had started school.

Father Bryan Coffey is accused of molesting the boy on two occasions during family social gatherings when the assistant priest was visiting.

Father Coffey was later convicted in the Ballarat County Court in February 1999 of multiple counts of sexual abuse against other children, and was given a three-year suspended sentence.

He died in 2013.

In 2021, 50 years after the events, the victim took his case to the Victorian Supreme Court and won, with the court finding the Diocese was vicariously liable for the damage caused by the assistant priest.

The man was awarded more than $200,000 in damages.

The church appealed against the finding that it was vicariously liable, but lost, prompting the High Court challenge today.

It was accepted in the lower courts that the abuse had happened on the balance of probabilities.

But the church says it is only vicariously liable if there was an employee-employer relationship.

In the earlier cases it was accepted that the assistant priest was not an employee or an independent contractor, but rather occupied a special place in a relationship founded in the hierarchical system of a Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church.

In both cases it was found this relationship did give rise to vicarious liability for wrongdoing by the assistant priest in the course of his work.

The Catholic Church is hoping to convince the High Court that is not correct at a hearing in Canberra today.