In December 2021, the Catholic Church tried to argue that it was not responsible for a priest who abused a five-year-old because it took place after hours during “social visits”. The Victorian Supreme Court said this was “an affront to common sense” and found that the Diocese of Ballarat was vicariously liable.
The unnamed child was abused by Father Bryan Coffey in Port Fairy in the 1970s. The boy was abused in his own home on two separate occasions while Coffey was providing pastoral care.
The church argued that Coffey was not a formal employee at the time and so the church could not be held liable for his actions. They claimed Coffey’s home visits were “social outings” and not connected to his work for the church.
Justice Jack Forrest said the claim was “sheer nonsense”.
“It is, in my view, both inconceivable and an affront to common sense to suggest (as the Diocese put it) that these visits to parishioners’ houses and the survivor’s home were unconnected with Coffey’s pastoral role within the Church and merely social outings separate to his role as an assistant priest,” he said.
Justice Forrest found that the Diocese of Ballarat was still liable for the abuse due to the close relationship between the bishop, the diocese and the Catholic community in Port Fairy. He also cited the diocese’s control over Coffey’s role and duties and the relationship between Coffey, the survivor and the survivor’s family.
“I am also satisfied that Coffey’s role as a priest under the direction of the Diocese placed him in a position of power and intimacy vis-à-vis the survivor that enabled him to take advantage of him when alone — just as he did with other boys,” he said.
The survivor said the church’s approach to the case was “ruthless” and caused him significant distress. He was cross-examined for three days and forced to relive painful memories including the sudden death of both his parents in a car crash in 1985. This was irrelevant to the case at hand.
“They weren’t giving anything away,” he said. “They wanted to drag me through it, and they dragged me through it.”
“I was always brought up that a priest is a priest, 24 hours a day,” he said. “We always had priests and nuns visit the house, and the nuns were never out of their habits when they came to the house. The priest was never out of his clerical tie when he visited the house.”
“They just tried to argue their way out of it.”
The survivor was awarded $230,000 in a landmark ruling.
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Feature Image: Deakin University