A survivor of abuse in the Victorian Catholic Church has spoken about a landmark ruling which will see the Diocese of the Church be held vicariously liable for abuse by its priests.
The survivor officially won his case and successfully sued the church in late December 2021 for abuse at the hands of Father Bryan Coffey.
Coffey died back in 2013, but was convicted of a number of counts of sexual assault in 1999.
Essentially the ruling — which, according to the man’s lawyers, is the first of its kind in Aus — means that the Church has “vicarious liability” for the priests in its jurisdiction.
“They weren’t giving anything away…They wanted to drag me through it, and they dragged me through it.”
During the trial, the church tried and failed to claim that Coffey wasn’t a formal employee of the Port Fairy Diocese as he was an assistant priest and therefore it wasn’t responsible for his actions.
They also claimed that because the abuse took place during home visits by Coffey, it wasn’t related to the Church. It argued that Coffey’s home visits were actually “social outings” — which is deeply deeply fucked.
The survivor discussed this with The Guardian.
“I was always brought up that a priest is a priest, 24 hours a day. We always had priests and nuns visit the house, and the nuns were never out of their habits when they came to the house.
“The priest was never out of his clerical tie when he visited the house,” he said.
“They just tried to argue their way out of it.”
Ultimately, Justice Jack Forrest was critical of the church’s “social outings” claim.
“I am satisfied that Coffey made a practice of attending parishioners’ homes as part of his pastoral role and this quite reasonably extended to attending social functions,” he said in the ruling.
“To suggest otherwise (as the Diocese does by asserting that these visits were social visits unconnected with Coffey’s role as an assistant priest) is sheer nonsense.”
While he ultimately accepted that Coffey wasn’t an employee of the Diocese, he ruled that the church was still responsible for his actions.
“The work of Coffey in his capacity as assistant parish priest in a small community comprised the “very essence” of the public manifestation of the Diocese and the Church in Port Fairy. It was not the case that Coffey “supplemented” or “aided” the work performed by the Diocese,” Forrest said.
“To the people engaging the services of Coffey, he and Father O’Dowd were the Diocese, and his role was to perform the Diocese’s operations in the community. Put another way, Coffey carried out the work of the Diocese “in its place” i.e. doing work “of” the Diocese.”
Sangeeta Sharmin, a lawyer with Ken Cush & Associates — the company who represented the survivor — told the ABC that the decision could have significant impacts.
“It marks for the first time in Australia a decision that exercises attribution of liability to a bishop for the acts of his predatory priest or assistant priest.
“Bishops and church leaders can no longer avoid responsibility by using a technical argument that the abuse did not arise from confidence in the clerical collar.”
The survivor was ultimately awarded $230,000 in damages.
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