The Catholic Church and some religious orders in Ireland could face huge compensation costs for victims of sexual and physical abuse if negligence is proved, the head of the Law Society has said. Mr Ken Murphy said employers who have been alerted to wrongful acts by employees, but take no action to stop them, may be deemed negligent by the courts under the law of "vicarious liability".
A case earlier this month, in which a woman won £140,000 in a civil action over sexual allegations against the publican who employed her, suggests Irish juries will make relatively high awards for such cases, said Mr Murphy. The amounts would probably be higher in cases involving children, said Mr Murphy, who is director general of the Law Society, which represents solicitors.
Following the conviction in Kerry earlier this month of Father John Brosnan on 13 charges of sexual abuse involving four girls and a boy, it emerged that the then bishop of Kerry, Dr Diarmuid O Suilleabhain (now deceased) was told in 1989 about the abuse, but had not acted.
This was confirmed by the present Bishop of Kerry, Dr William Murphy, who said in a letter read at all Masses in the diocese that "it would appear that the full nature and extent of what occurred was not understood or ascertained by him [Dr O Suilleabhain".
The Irish bishops' spokesman, Father Martin Clarke, said it was not clear how many claims were under way against the church arising from incidents of abuse. Each case was being dealt with separately, in accordance with due process, in the relevant diocese or religious congregation. So far, no case had come to court. He said the Catholic Primate, Dr Sean Brady, had said the church "won't shirk on its responsibilities if that involves compensation".
Since 1980, 23 clergy have been convicted in Ireland on sex abuse charges, 15 in the Republic and eight in the North. A further 15 cases are pending, two of which are in the North. Among the convicted are 12 diocesan priests, five religious order priests, two priests serving abroad whose offences were perpetrated in Ireland, and four religious brothers.
© The Irish Times - Saturday, November 29, 1997