Pa. Supreme Court sets hearing in clergy abuse case

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By Peter Smith

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments on Oct. 20 on the appeal from a Roman Catholic diocese in a case that could allow plaintiffs to sue over sexual abuse by priests in cases that otherwise would be barred by the statute of limitations.

The court will hear the case of Renee Rice of Altoona, who sued the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown alleging sexual abuse by one of its priests, the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, in the 1970s and 1980s. The case is scheduled to be heard at 9:30 a.m. on Oct. 20, with arguments livestreamed on YouTube, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Ms. Rice’s lawsuit, filed in 2016, was dismissed by a Blair County judge who said the statute of limitations precluded suing over long-ago abuse.

But the state Superior Court ruled in 2019 that she could pursue her claim that the Altoona-Johnstown diocese covered up sexual abuse by numerous priests using a pattern of alleged fraud and conspiracy that continued right up to the 2016 release of a grand jury report into sexual abuse in the diocese. In similar cases in previous years, the Superior Court had ruled in favor of the church, but it based its latest ruling on a new Supreme Court precedent in a medical malpractice case, which said a patient with Lyme disease could sue long after a misdiagnosis because it took years for the disease to manifest itself.

Numerous plaintiffs have used the same legal theory of alleged fraud and conspiracy as the basis for lawsuits against the Pittsburgh, Greensburg and other dioceses that were subjects of a similar and larger grand jury report in 2018. Those still-pending lawsuits hinge on the precedent in the Altoona-Johnstown case.

The opposing lawyers in the Altoona-Johnstown case have already outlined their arguments in written briefs.

The diocese’s attorney, Eric Anderson, argued in writing that the medical-malpractice precedent should not apply in this case, saying that unlike with a slow-developing disease, “the harm involved in sexual battery cases is immediately ascertainable by plaintiffs at the time of the abuse.”

“Plaintiff became aware of her initial injury approximately 41 years before she filed her first complaint yet failed to investigate the [diocese’s] potential liability, despite knowing they employed her abuser and some of the abuse occurred on church property,” he argued.

The court, he wrote, should uphold “the obligation of a plaintiff to exercise due diligence and conduct a reasonable investigation,” adding that when a bishop invited her to participate in an investigation of the priest back in 2006, she refused.

But Ms. Rice’s attorneys, Alan Perer and Richard Serbin, wrote that the issue is not what the plaintiff knew and when about her own abuse but about the diocese’s alleged pattern of fraud and conspiracy.

“… What Rice alleges she neither knew nor suspected until the Grand Jury Report was issued in 2016 are facts that underlie her claims,” they wrote. The diocese, they said, held “Bodziak out as a cleric in good standing by retaining him as an active priest with access to children until 2016; held other predator-priests out as upright clerics by allowing them to serve in the diocese’s parish and schools; … and made repeated and unequivocal public statements that they did not tolerate or ignore the sexual abuse of children and investigated all allegations of such behavior.”

They said even the 2006 investigation involved a diocesan victim’s advocate who, the grand jury report said, worked more for the diocese than the victims.

The Superior Court opinion, if upheld, would not automatically hand a victory to Ms. Rice, but it would give her the opportunity to make her case at a civil trial.

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