The High Court in London ruled on Tuesday that the Catholic Church can be held liable for the wrongdoings of priests, which could make it easier for abuse victims to bring claims against the Church.

The ruling concerned a 47-year-old woman who alleges she was sexually abused by a priest and is pursuing a claim for damages, although it is understood the decision will affect other types of claims made against the Catholic Church.

Judge Alistair MacDuff ruled in the case of the woman who claims she was sexually assaulted as a child by a priest of the Portsmouth Diocese, at a children’s home in Hampshire, run by an order of nuns.

Giving his decision on a preliminary issue in her damages action the judge held that, in law, the Church “may be vicariously liable” for the alleged wrongdoings of the priest, the late Father Wilfred Baldwin. 

For legal reasons, the woman can only be identified as JGE.

The judge said although there was no formal contract between the Church and Father Baldwin, there were “crucial features” that should be recognised.

“He was provided with the premises, the pulpit and the clerical robes. He was directed into the community with that full authority and was given free rein to act as a representative of the Church,” he said.

“He had been trained and ordained for the purpose. He had immense power handed to him by the defendants. It was they who appointed him to the position of trust which (if the allegations can be proved) he so abused.”

The trustees of the defendants in the case, Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust, were given leave to appeal.

Edward Faulks, for the defendants, said the Catholic Church “takes sexual abuse extremely seriously and it is entirely concerned to eradicate it”.

The preliminary issue was on a point of law, he said, and emphasised that the Church was not seeking to abandon responsibility for sexual abuse.

Although there have been relatively few cases of clerical abuse in Britain compared to the huge number of cases in neighbouring Ireland, the Vatican is currently investigating claims of sexual abuse at an abbey in London.