Case against diocese draws attention
Briefs challenge, support landmark decision allowing lawsuit against priest
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in the past week has received several friend-of-the-court briefs both supporting and challenging a landmark decision made by the court last year in which it allowed an Altoona woman to proceed with a sexual abuse case against a priest, even though the alleged offenses occurred in the mid-1970s.
Pennsylvania’s highest court agreed in March to review the Superior Court decision, which has drawn interest from church organizations as well victims’ rights groups nationwide.
According to attorney Richard M. Serbin, who has a law office in Altoona and who represents the alleged victim of the sexual abuse, Renee A. Rice, no date has been set for argument on the appeal.
Serbin said that in the past week, amicus briefs have been filed by supporters of his client, CHILD USA, The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the National Crime Victims Association and the Pennsylvania Association of Justice.
Other briefs have been filed on behalf of the defendants by the The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese, other dioceses in Pennsylvania and The Catholic League.
The case is unique because Serbin sued the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, not for the alleged sexual abuse of his client by Charles F. Bodziak, a now-retired Catholic priest at the former St. Leo Parish, but focused instead on the cover-up of child sexual abuse cases by the diocese over a period of decades.
The initial lawsuit was filed in 2016 after the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a grand jury report outlining how sexual abuse by priests in the local diocese essentially was ignored throughout the years.
Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva dismissed the Rice lawsuit because the statute of limitations supposedly had expired long ago.
However, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, in an opinion issued June 19, 2019, took a different stance, ruling that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until 2016 when the grand jury identified the ongoing cover-up by the diocese.
Rice contends she suffered a whole new set of injures upon learning of the diocesan defendant’s intentional cover-up of cases from the grand jury report.
The Superior Court went on to rule that it will be up to a jury to decide if Ms. Rice used “due diligence” in reporting the abuse that occurred to her.
The appeals court based its ruling on a recent Supreme Court decision involving the statute of limitations as it applied in a medical malpractice case.
Serbin, who has been prosecuting child sexual abuse cases by priests for more than 30 years, said of the Rice situation, “It is a landmark case that deals with a major issue that will affect not only Renee Rice but lawsuits statewide. …”
“I did not sue for the sexual assault. … I sued only for conspiracy, fraud and constructive fraud” due to the cover up of child sexual abuse, Serbin explained.
What happened in the Altoona diocese also occurred in other dioceses in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation, Serbin said.
He said Rice “has a very strong commitment” to exposing what happened.
In an amicus brief filed by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, spokesman Bill Donohue said the Superior Court ruling was “badly flawed.”
The decision “changed a basic principle of law” by altering the timeline for the statute of limitations, he argued in a release concerning his organization’s amicus brief.
He stated, “We have reached a new level of jurisprudence when a court can invoke a jury decision as the new clock determining when the limitations period starts to run.”
“At issue here is the separation of powers between the Legislature and the judiciary,” Donohue said.
If the Superior Court decision is not overturned it will not only affect the Catholic church, it will affect all religious organizations, he said.
Donohue concluded that if left standing, the Superior Court decision could effect commerce by putting schools, hospitals, colleges, the Boy Scouts and all employers at risk for being sued decades after the alleged incidents.
In a brief submitted by CHILD USA, a “think tank” dedicated to stopping child abuse, it wanted to emphasize several issues:
n Research shows children often do not understand what is happening to them when they experience abuse.
n The effects of abuse often result in the victims’ inability to recognize their injuries, even later in life.
n Courts in other states have crafted discovery rules that take into consideration that statutes of limitations in some cases may be overly harsh.
The CHILD USA brief was submitted by Philadelphia attorney Charles L. Becker.
The diocese, in its brief prepared by Pittsburgh attorney Eric N. Anderson, argues that Ms. Rice was aware of the abuse 41 years before she filed a complaint, and failed to investigate the potential liability of the defendants, which include two deceased bishops, James Hogan and Joseph Adamec, and Bodziak.
The alleged abuse, the diocese stated, caused the primary harm to Ms. Rice and the disclosure by the grand jury does not constitute new harm.
It also contended that the original statute of limitations — two years past Rice’s 18th birthday — was not tolled by the grand jury revelations.
According to the lawsuit, Rice, who attended St. Leo’s church, was sexually abused by Bodziak from age 9 to 14, during which time she sang at Masses, played the church organ, and with permission of her parents, cleaned the church rectory.
The lawsuit indicates that her activity on behalf of Bodziak and the church created a “confidential relationship” with the church that also tolled the statute of limitations.
That relationship, the diocese maintained, does not relieve the victim of her responsibility to “exercise due diligence.”
Bodziak’s attorney, R. Thomas Forr Jr., of Altoona was not available for comment.