Lawsuit against diocese revived
By Matt Miller
June 12, 2019
A state Superior Court panel Tuesday reinstated a lawsuit against the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown filed by a woman who claims a pedophile priest consistently molested her in the 1970s and ’80s.
That decision, outlined in an opinion by Judge Deborah A. Kunselman, overturns a Blair County judge’s dismissal of Renee A. Rice’s suit on statute of limitations grounds.
Rice claims her former priest at St. Leo’s Church in Altoona, the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, began molesting her when she was about 9 years old in the mid-’70s. That molestation continued at the church, while she cleaned the rectory, in a graveyard and in Bodziak’s car until 1981, she contends. She said the abuse occurred as often as twice a week.
County Judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva dismissed Rice’s suit after agreeing with the diocese that she waited too long to file it. By the calculation of the diocese and Kopriva, the time limit for filing the case expired in October 1987, two years after Rice’s 18th birthday.
However, Kunselman’s panel revived Rice’s suit by citing a state Supreme Court ruling that was handed down 10 months after Kopriva issued the dismissal.
That ruling by the state’s highest court involved a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed a doctor failed to diagnose her lyme disease. The Supreme Court justices found that a jury, not a judge, must decide if a plaintiff in a lawsuit exercised due diligence and acted in a timely manner in investigating the wrongs he or she claims were committed.
In such cases, the jurors also must make the call on whether the plaintiff missed the deadline for filing suit.
“Only a jury may determine whether Ms. Rice reasonably investigated the diocesan defendants,” Kunselman wrote in her 37-page opinion.
In Rice’s case, that means a jury must decide the merits of Rice’s contention that she wasn’t fully aware of the scope of diocese efforts to cover up reports of Bodziak’s pedophilia until they were brought to light in a state grand jury report issued in March 2016, Kunselman found. She noted Rice filed her lawsuit months after that report came out.
Kunselman also concluded that Kopriva should not have dismissed a count of Rice’s suit that accuses the diocese of conspiracy. Rice claims she didn’t know and could not have known about the coverup until the grand jury report revealed the diocese kept a “secret archive” regarding pedophile priests.
“None of the commonwealth’s prosecutors, investigators or child-protection departments discovered the diocesan defendants’ alleged conduct for over 50 years,” Kunselman wrote. “Thus, we cannot fairly conclude that Ms. Rice’s similar failure to discover their alleged conduct was unreasonable.”
The Superior Court’s ruling puts Rice’s suit back on track for a civil trial.
PennLive does not usually identify victims of sex crimes, but Rice decided to be named in the media in the hope that will encourage other victims to come forward.
The grand jury report found that Altoona-Johnstown Diocese leaders covered up the abuse of hundreds of children by at least 50 priests and other religious leaders for decades. Bodziak was removed by Bishop Mark Bartchak two months before the grand jury report was issued by the state attorney general’s office. Bodziak was named as a predator priest by the grand jury.
The grand jury investigation into the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese was one of several conducted into Catholic diocese throughout Pennsylvania.
Another grand jury report released last year cited child-sex incidents in the Diocese of Harrisburg as well.
The Pennsylvania probes have sent shock waves all the way to the Vatican and have prompted church bishops to offer apologies, seek forgiveness, set up victim compensation funds and institute security improvements to protect their young parishioners.
Meanwhile, multiple lawsuits filed by those claiming to be victims are working their way through the courts.