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In an important decision of which charities and religious bodies should take careful note, the Court of Appeal has underlined that they can be held legally liable for the misdeeds of volunteers as well as paid employees.
The case concerned a man who held office as a ‘ministerial servant’ in a minority church. Over a five-year period he regularly sexually abused a young girl, who endured grave psychological consequences. A judge found the church liable for the abuse and ordered it to pay the woman £275,000 in damages. It was also directed to pay legal costs estimated at about £1 million.
In challenging that ruling, the church emphasised that the man was not an employee and that his role did not extend much beyond tidying up after events. He held no responsibility for the welfare of child members of the congregation and his non-pastoral duties bore no resemblance to those of a priest.
In rejecting the appeal, however, the Court noted that the man’s relationship with the church was akin to employment. He held a position of trust that gave him ostensible authority to have unaccompanied access to children. His opportunity to abuse the girl arose from that position and it was fair, just and reasonable to hold the church legally responsible for what he did. Elders of the church had also failed to take reasonable steps to protect children in the congregation after suspicions were raised that the man had abused another girl.