Pa. Supreme Court hears arguments on statute of limitations in priest sex abuse cases

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By Paula Reed Ward

Renee Rice said she was abused by a priest in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese from the mid-1970s until 1980.

She filed a complaint with the diocese in 2006 and received a letter from them in July of that year inviting her to participate in an ongoing investigation.

Rice declined because she was living in Tennessee at the time. Ten years later — after a grand jury report showed her abuser, the Rev. Charles Bodziak, was among several priests accused and that the church had covered up the abuse — she sued the diocese for fraud and conspiracy.

The case initially was thrown out in Blair County Common Pleas Court for Rice’s failure to file a claim within the two-year statute of limitations. But the Superior Court last year said the case could continue because Rice did not know until the 2016 grand jury report was issued that the church had allegedly covered up Bodziak’s abuse.

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the issue, with both sides focusing on when Rice was required to start an inquiry into filing her lawsuit.

The case was argued virtually and streamed via YouTube. A decision isn’t expected for months but likely will impact dozens of similar lawsuits against dioceses across Pennsylvania.

Diocesan attorney Eric Anderson argued the lower court decision was “not well-founded” and that the court “misapplied the law.”

He said the 2006 letter to Rice from the diocese triggered the statute of limitations. Because she didn’t file her complaint within two years of that date, he continued, her claims are time-barred.

“That letter did it,” he said, describing the message of the letter as, “ ‘We know. We are investigating your abuser. We know he abused somebody else.’

“I don’t know how much more notice you can give somebody than what was done in that letter.”

But Rice’s attorney disagreed, arguing the letter did not reveal Bodziak had abused anyone else.

“It didn’t say anything like that,” Alan Perer said. “She didn’t know anything about concealment or a cover-up until the grand jury report.”

Perer said a jury should decide whether the church concealed the abuse and thereby tolled the time required to file a complaint. (“Tolled” is a specific legal term for delaying.)

Donohue cited extensive media coverage in 2000 of a widespread cover-up by the Catholic Church nationally. She questioned whether that should have spurred Rice to action.

“There’s no reason she should not have been placed on inquiry notice,” Anderson said. “I think there was more than sufficient notice to the public.”

The question before the court, Baer said, was whether Rice knew, or should have known, the church was involved in a conspiracy to cover up Bodziak’s actions.

“There’s no evidence in the record whatsoever she made any effort to investigate that matter,” Anderson said.

He argued it was Rice’s obligation to do so.

Donohue asked Perer repeatedly about the 2006 letter and why Rice didn’t follow up on it.

“Didn’t she have a responsibility, due diligence so to speak, to participate in the investigation when requested by the diocese to do so?” Donohue said. “You’re asking us to essentially say that there’s never a statute of limitations defense as a matter of law.”

Perer disagreed, saying the letter failed to provide the notice necessary to begin an inquiry.

“It would be far-fetched for a plaintiff to even conceive this massive cover-up, this massive conspiracy to cover up abuse for years and years and years,” he said. “There was a concealment at that time: They had actually received another report earlier. She didn’t know anything about a concealment. She didn’t know anything about a cover-up until the grand jury report.”

But Donohue, again referencing media coverage, asked: “Is there ever a point in time prior to the grand jury report in (2016) that this plaintiff had an obligation to do her own investigation as opposed to relying on a government investigation?”

“I think these are questions for a reasonable jury to decide,” Perer answered. “The diocese still could win. Let a jury decide the issue, because we have competing facts exactly on that issue.”

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