Comment on the Case of The Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. George’s and John Doe by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

Sunday, January 11 2004

1. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) will appear 14 January 2004 in the Supreme Court of Canada as an intervener in a case of sexual abuse by a priest in the Diocese of St. George’s in Newfoundland.

2. The CCCB will make two essential arguments: 1) that the Roman Catholic Church is not a suable entity and 2) that the Diocese of St. George’s should not be held vicariously liable.

3. The CCCB will be asking that the Supreme Court of Canada uphold existing precedent including the trial and court of appeal decisions in this case that decided the Roman Catholic Church, while an ecclesiastical entity, is not a suable entity. The trial Judge, Mr. Justice Wells, put it aptly when he said: “I do not think it is sound in law or otherwise meaningful, to make a finding of liability against the Roman Catholic Church which is neither a person or a corporation within this jurisdiction, but rather is the embodiment of a religious faith with worldwide adherents and a governance by Bishops subject to the authority of the Pope.”

4. While the plaintiffs cannot sue “The Roman Catholic Church”, they are not left without a remedy as they can look for redress to those corporate entities and individuals that conduct the Church’s temporal affairs. In this case, that entity is the Episcopal Corporation of St. George’s.

5. Because of his ecclesiastical office, a priest is endowed with moral and spiritual authority and, accordingly, is recognized as a person deserving of trust not only by parishioners, but others in the Church. When a priest abuses this trust, he breaches not only his fiduciary obligation with respect to his victim, but also breaks faith with all those in the Church. The priest rightly should be held accountable for his breach of trust, and if Church officials have facilitated a priest’s conduct though negligence, they too should be held accountable. The Bishop, however, absent fault, cannot be held liable for a priest’s breach of trust or fiduciary duty.

6. To impose vicarious liability, that is to say to impose liability where there is no fault, on a Bishop because a priest abuses his position of trust is wrong. It would be similar to making the Law Society responsible for all wrongful actions that arise from a lawyer’s breach of trust because it had cloaked the lawyer with the authority that commands such trust.

7. The abuse of children is a serious sin and a crime. The Bishops of Canada have had guidelines in place since 1992 and are committed to preventing child abuse and making the Church a safe place for children.

The written argument that was filed in the Supreme Court of Canada is available on the CCCB website at or by clicking on the link below. Legal counsel William Sammon is available to answer further questions at telephone number (613) 594 8000.

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