A CATHOLIC brotherhood which supplied teachers to a residential school can be held legally responsible for sexual abuse of boys, leading judges ruled today.

Around 170 men are seeking damages after alleging they were abused as children at St William's in Market Weighton, East Yorkshire, and a former head was convicted of numerous serious sexual offences, the Supreme Court heard.

A panel of five Supreme Court justices today concluded that legal responsibility should be shared between a welfare society which managed the school and a brotherhood which provided teachers.

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St Williams was founded in 1865 by Catholic benefactors and run locally as a reformatory school for boys, Supreme Court justices had been told at a hearing in London.

In 1933, St Williams became an approved school for boys convicted of custodial offences and in 1973 it became an assisted community home for children in local authority care.

St Williams had been managed by the Middlesbrough Diocesan Rescue Society until 1982 then by the Catholic Child Welfare Society (Diocese of Middlesbrough), the Supreme Court - the highest in the UK - was told.

Members of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, founded in 1680, had taught at the school alongside lay teachers - and a brother always acted as headmaster, judges heard.

In 1990, the then head had been expelled from the brotherhood after it was discovered that he was guilty of systematic sexual abuse of boys in his care, said judges.

He had been convicted of numerous counts of serious sexual offences against boys over a 20-year period and St Williams had closed in the early 1990s, the court heard.

Damages claims had been brought by 170 men who alleged that they had been abused by that former head and by other brothers, said judges.

Supreme Court justices said the question they considered was whether the brotherhood was responsible in law - vicariously liable - for alleged acts of sexual and physical abuse of children by its members between 1952 and 1992 at St Williams.

They concluded that it was fair, just and reasonable for the brotherhood to share vicarious liability for sexual abuse committed by the brothers.

The High Court and the Court of Appeal had earlier taken a different view - ruling that the brotherhood could not be held legally responsible.

Lawyer Emma Jones, a human rights specialist at law firm Leigh Day & Co, said later that the Supreme Court ruling had implications.

Ms Jones added: "It sets a legal precedent that those supplying carers, teachers and other adults who work with children must ensure that the appropriate checks are carried out as they can and will be held accountable should abuse of the vulnerable occur."