An attempted legal appeal by the Catholic church to the Supreme Court over sex abuse by one of its priests could decide whether victims of Jimmy Savile can make claims against hospitals and the BBC.
The Catholic church has applied to appeal to the Supreme Court against a decision by the Court of Appeal that it is responsible for child abuse committed by one of its clergy.
The appeal concerns a civil action brought by Miss JGE (name withheld). She claims that she was sexually abused by a Catholic priest whilst resident in a children's home run by the church, in Waterlooville, Hampshire.
In November 2011 the High Court found that the church is responsible for the sexual misbehaviour of its clergy. The church disputed the judgment and took the case to the Court of Appeal in May, but the court confirmed the previous judgment.
The appeal court also refused the church permission to appeal further to the Supreme Court, but the church have now applied directly to the Supreme Court for that permission.
The church had claimed that, on a technicality of employment law, it could not be held legally responsible because there is no formal employment relationship with their priests.
If the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the lower courts, then the way would be open for victims of Jimmy Savile and others to bring civil claims against the organizations within which they were working.
This means that the BBC, where Savile worked, could be held responsible for abuse which took place on their premises.
The same could be true for those hospitals where he was a volunteer, without payment, but acted as one of the staff.
JGE's lawyer is Tracey Emmott of Emmott Snell, a specialist in working with legal claims arising from sexual abuse. She is also acting for many of those involved in the Jersey Haut de la Garenne scandal.
'This appeal to the Supreme Court by the church would be to decide an issue of law at this point and isn't concerned with finding a case or otherwise for my client,' - Tracey Emmott explains.
'The Supreme Court would have to decide whether the decisions by previous judges in the lower courts were correct, that the church is legally responsible for abuse by a priest, even though he was not an employee in the strict sense of the word. If the church's appeal to the Supreme Court were successful, that would effectively mean no more civil cases against the church could ever be brought.'
''JGE' is now the leading case on this issue of 'vicarious liability'. Depending on the outcome, claims by Savile's victims may be brought against the BBC, NHS and the Department of Health for his work as a volunteer at Leeds, Broadmoor, Stoke Mandeville and so on. If Savile were an employee of the BBC then the question of responsibility will be easy to satisfy. But as to his charitable hospital work, this raises the question of whether an organisation is liable for the acts of a volunteer, who is not strictly an employee.'
'To make a successful claim, victims would have to show that Savile's relationship with the NHS was like that of an employee. So matters to consider would include whether he was paid to do the work, was he given a uniform or badge, was he perceived to be carrying out the purpose or the enterprise of the NHS and so on.'
The case of JGE involved the late Father Baldwin, a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth. At the time of the alleged abuse he was vocations director of the Roman Catholic diocese of Portsmouth and regularly visited The Firs children's home, in Waterlooville.
JGE was admitted to the home in May 1970, aged seven. The home was run by an order of nuns, the English Province of Our Lady of Charity. Father Baldwin was encouraged to have contact with the children and was granted generous and unsupervised access to them. It is also alleged that the nuns may have colluded with Father Baldwin in his activities, or were at least negligent in allowing the abuse to occur.
JGE claims that during these visits Father Baldwin sexually abused her both within the home, in a private sitting room set aside for visitors, and in the vestry of the adjoining church of St Michael and All Angels. The allegations arose in May 2006 after police received complaints against Father Baldwin, and came 'cold calling' on JGE and others who they suspected may have been abused.
Father Baldwin died in 2006.
'In the current climate of concern, that would clearly be unacceptable,' says Tracey Emmott. 'The church claimed that my client's was the only allegation against a priest described by the church as being of 'unblemished character'.
Yet before his death Father Baldwin had been the subject of an extensive police investigation, based on allegations against him from at least three other alleged victims. 'The church seems wholly incapable of facing the truth about the extent of child abuse among its clergy, or the way that the internal culture of the church may hide or encourage that abuse.
'The sad story is that the church still fails to act on child abuse allegations against priests and is unwilling to accept the reality. Instead of acting responsibly in dealing with genuine victims of abuse by its priests, the catholic church is yet again trying to escape the glaring reality of clerical abuse through a loophole of the law. When will the church face up to its responsibilities?'
It is known that several others who claim abuse at the hands of Father Baldwin are also considering bringing civil claims against the church, depending on the outcome of this decision on a final appeal.
It is not yet known when the Supreme Court will decide whether to give the church permission to appeal the court of appeal ruling.