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John Doe v. Bennett

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Court/Judicial body: Supreme Court of Canada

Citation: 2004 SCC 17
Date: 25 March 2004
Instrument(s) cited: Act to Incorporate the Roman Catholic Bishop of St. George’s, S.N. 1913 Code of Canon Law (1983), Can. 528

Case summary

Background: In 2000, a trial court found the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. George’s (St George’s) liable for negligence for almost two decades of sexual assault committed by Father Bennet, a priest within the diocese of St George’s. St George’s appealed against this decision, claiming that its powers were limited to holding property and it could not be held liable for acts of its clergy.

Issue and resolution: Liability of religious corporations for sexual abuse by clergy.  The court found St George’s directly and vicariously liable for the sexual abuse committed by a member of its clergy.

Court reasoning: The Court held that a religious corporation is the legal interface between the Roman Catholic Church and the public, that the incorporating act of St George’s did not limit its powers to acts involving property, and that to do so would be inappropriate. The acts of the bishop of a corporation are attributable to the religious corporation, whose acts include the direction, control and discipline of priests, and so negligence by the bishop in this area constitutes negligence of the corporation. On this basis, St. George’s was held to be directly liable to the complainant victims. The Court considered the rationale behind vicarious liability, whereby a person who puts a risky enterprise into the community can be held responsible when these risks emerge and cause loss or injury to members of the public. The Court found that the test for vicarious liability was met in this instance: (1) the relationship between Father Bennett and St. George’s was sufficiently close to warrant vicarious liability, as the relationship between bishop and priest is akin to an employer and employee relationship; and (2) the wrongful acts committed by Father Bennett were sufficiently connected to the conduct authorised by St. George’s so as to be a manifestation of the risks inherent in the enterprise. The Court also affirmed that public policy does not shield non-profit bodies from vicarious liability, including for sexual assaults committed by their employees.

Notes: The Court did not decide whether the Roman Catholic Church was liable, indicating that the record did not have enough evidence for the Court to make a decision on this. This means that, while individual priests and the dioceses that hire them may be sued, it is not clear whether a claim against the Roman Catholic Church would be successful. A local diocese does not have access to the financial resources of the larger Roman Catholic Church, which may limit the availability of recovery for complainants.

Link to full judgement: