Saturday, July 30, 2011

Secular UK Press v Catholic Church

Currently anti catholic sentiment in the media is increasing. Obviously with the number of historic child safeguarding issues that are coming to light those responsible in the Church on earth should hang their heads in shame and   try to atone and reconcile. However  the media seems hell bent on  vilifying the Church generally despite the huge numbers of good people both priests and laity that there are and always have been in the catholic church, and vast amount of good works done in its name. For example extracts from an article in last Sunday's Observer newspaper  read:

In a little publicised case heard this month at the high court, the church claimed that it is not "vicariously liable" for priests' actions....The church's defence has been condemned by lawyers. "I think the Catholic church's attempt to avoid responsibility for the abhorrent actions of one of its priests is nothing short of scandalous," said Richard Scorer of the law firm Pannone, which specialises in abuse cases. "The Catholic church would be better served by facing up to its responsibilities rather than trying to hide behind spurious employment law arguments."


In my humble opinion this comment is prejudiced against the Church. Since Biblical times the accepted position of an individual human being is that we are not the keeper of our brothers or  sisters, see for example the questions posed in genesis 4:9. This position was right up to the end of C20 also reflected in the British common law traditions. For example, an employee who whilst on what the courts concluded was a "frolic of his own", albeit during his employer's time, committed a wrong which caused harm to someone, was usually adjudged as being personally liable for the consequences of his act but  with his  innocent employer and colleagues not being liable as well. Thus in the case of KEPPEL BUS CO. LTD. v. SA'AD bin AHMAD a  bus passenger got into an argument with the bus conductor, in the course of which the conductor struck him in the eye with his ticket punch, and blinded him.  The passenger sued the bus company   for its conductor's wrongdoing but as the conductor's actions were against the employer's instructions and were completely outside the scope of his employment - he  was on a frolic of his own -  the employer was held not to be liable. 


This  common law  legal tradition  of following the biblical position as regard personal responsibility  changed only in C21 when the House of Lords asked the question in the case of  LISTER V HESLEY HALL of whether  as a matter of legal principle the employers of the warden of a school boarding house, who sexually abused boys in his care, may depending on the particular circumstances be vicariously liable for the torts of their employee. The warden had committed his  assaults secretly and in fundamental breach of his duties of trust not only to the children in his care but also to his employers. Their lordships essentially changed the law by finding that the school could be liable on the grounds that the governors  had put the rogue in that position by employing him in the first place.


Such logic presumably means that the husband of a wife who has an affair with the husband of another married couple, should be liable for any hurts caused to innocent  children in the other family  say on their father leaving them even though the wife's affair was conducted in secret. The analogy is not perfect but does illustrate the consequences of lawyers not treating each human being as responsible for the consequences of his or her own actions with such personal  responsibility not  extending to others unless they are complicit in some way.


Their Lordships'  decision   again in my humble opinion very sadly, mirrors the now prevailing view in society that someone must be blamed for every hurt suffered and if the perpetrator has no money and is a man of straw, then someone else should pay. Until 2001 in the UK at least, that need to compensate the victim of a dastardly crime perpetrated by a rogue of straw  was borne by Society at large as the taxpayer funded Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority would make payments to such victims on behalf of the rest of us. Their Lordships' logic like that of the Observer and Guardian newspapers is to equate the responsibility of an owner of a dangerous dog for the animal's bites and assaults inflicted on others with those of an human being with whom one is  associated even if only perhaps by way of being part of the same  religious community as him and of trusting him to act with good faith. Obviously if the trust is unsoundly based because of a failure to take up references or to respond to warning signs then that may be negligent for which a another may be liable but absent negligence the making of an innocent person liable for the assaults of another committed in secret and in breach of trust is   demeaning to  the dignity that  should be afforded to each man and woman of being personally responsible for our own actions.

To put this another way the UK Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 essentially makes the keeper of a dog strictly liable for any actions by the dog which  hurt another human being. I agree that the assaults by any human being  on a child of the kind referred to in the Observer article are akin to those of a dog but treating him as a dog for the purposes of making another  liable for his actions ultimately detracts from meaning of being human which is essentially belittling to us all.

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