In a decision handed down just prior to Christmas, DP (a pseudonym) v Bird  VSC 850 (22 December 2021), a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court ruled that the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Ballarat could be sued as vicariously liable for child sexual abuse committed by an assistant parish priest against the plaintiff DP when he was 5 years old (in 1971). The decision (as noted in a recent online press report) seems to be the first time a diocese has been found vicariously liable under common law principles for the actions of a priest, in Australia. In this note I will suggest that the reason for this is that the decision is wrong, as inconsistent with clear High Court of Australia authority. This does not mean that I think that the organised church ought to be allowed to escape liability for harm committed by clergy to children in its care. To the contrary, as explained below, I think the High Court ought to revisit another area of common law which prevents many such claims at the moment. But the decision in DP is not consistent with the course of development of the law of vicarious liability and will, in my judgment, be overturned if there is an appeal on this point.
The submission of Freedom for Faith to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into the Religious Discrimination Bill is now available for download here. I prepared the submission with input from other board members. Submissions to this committee can be made at their website here, but only until 5 pm Tuesday 21 December. There is also a short survey that the Committee have released which it would be good for anyone concerned with religious freedom in Australia to fill in before that same deadline.
Current press reports suggest that the Federal Government is contemplating a change to the provisions of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 which allow religious schools to operate in accordance with their religious commitments, in the area of decisions about students. This is being proposed to allay fears that the recently introduced Religious Discrimination Bill will impact on LGBT students. (See here for my overview of the Bill.) Just to be clear, I think this is a terrible idea- the Australian Law Reform Commission already has a reference on this issue and they should be allowed to complete their work by taking into account all the issues. But I make a few comments on the proposal anyway.
The provision in question is s 38(3) of the SDA, which allows religious schools to make decisions in relation to students in accordance with their religious commitments, and for that not to amount to “sexual orientation” discrimination. Actually religious schools very rarely rely on this provision to expel or discipline students- but there are cases where a religious school may lay down a “code of conduct” or the like which may be seen by some as discriminatory on this basis.
If s 38(3) of the SDA is to be amended so that religious schools may no longer make decisions based on “sexual orientation”, then there still needs to be an explicit protection allowing such schools to require students to conduct themselves in accordance with the religious ethos of the school. It is generally accepted that schools are entitled to set up “reasonable standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students”. A provision to this effect is already contained, for example, in the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act 2010, s 42. This provision also requires the views of the local school community to be considered. The equivalent in the context of the SDA would be allowing the school to operate in accordance with its religious ethos.
The last time this came up, in 2018, I suggested a possible redraft of s 38(3) which would achieve this outcome: https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/…/ruddock-report…/. Perhaps it could be called s 38A, and I suggest this is what it might look like:
Possible s 38A Nothing in s 21 renders it unlawful for an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, in connection with the provision of education or training, to set and enforce standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students, so long as this is done in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.
This would make it clear that decision would not be made on the basis of internal self-identification as “gay”, but on the basis of actual behaviour. A school set up to teach and model the principles of Christianity may want to say, for example, that they do not want to act on student’s internal feelings or temptations, but they cannot support public advocacy and activity which is contrary to the teachings of the Bible.