Moral matters

Last night’s edition of the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 considered some of the difficult moral issues which arise in connection with allegations of historical sexual abuse, including where the accused is dead. Peter Hitchins, who has commented and spoken widely on the case of Bishop George Bell, contributed along with others including Barbara Hewson, known for her previous public comments about matters relating to historical allegations and a somewhat controversial suggestion of a reduction in the age of consent to age 13. The panel and the contributors touched on not only the issue of allegations against the deceased, but also the significance of the accused’s position and reputation, and whether there should be a much stricter enforcement of limitation periods. What was not considered was the difficulties for many organisations when faced with civil claims founded in vicarious liability, something which for a live programme made on the day the Supreme Court had again given judgment on the issue of vicarious liability (notwithstanding not in an abuse arena but it is not realistic to separate this area of law) would have been topical.

Since the decision in Lister v Hesley Hall the law on vicarious liability has moved a very long way to facilitate a means by which victims and survivors of abuse can be more easily compensated. That has been one of the factors which has enabled more victims and survivors to disclose the abuse and in turn to pursue civil claims. An organisation will often be investigating the allegations against a deceased person in the context of a civil claim for there will not have been a police investigation or criminal trial (unlike at the opposite extreme the very public trial and conviction of Paul Johnson, again something which the contributors did not comment upon). As the programme noted, decisions in civil claims are made on the balance of probabilities but it did not consider that that must be in the context of how the law on vicarious liability has been developed. The programme reached no firm conclusions and indeed the issues it determined are so complex it would have been surprising had it done so. What is clear is that there is no “one size fits all” solution for addressing the moral, social and economic issues which arise when abuse is disclosed and civil claims made. It will be interesting to see how the IICSA seeks to try and resolve these matters when it pursues its Accountability & Reparation Investigation.

The Moral Maze is available on BBC radio iPlayer until 1 April 2016


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Written by Paula Jefferson, partner

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