Landmark Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ruling May Help Other Older Clergy Abuse Lawsuits Proceed
By Eric T. Chaffin
June 18, 2019
A recent decision by the Pennsylvania State Superior Court may soon open the door for previously time-barred Catholic Church clergy sexual abuse lawsuits to proceed.
On June 11, 2019, a three-judge panel agreed to reinstate a lawsuit filed by a plaintiff who claims she was sexually abused by clergy in the 1970s and 1980s. She filed the lawsuit in 2016, but it was dismissed by the trial court because the statute of limitations had expired.
The plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed the order granting judgment and remanded the case to proceed in the trial court.
Woman Files Lawsuit Accusing Diocese of Covering Up Claims of Abuse
On March 1, 2016, the Pennsylvania 37th Investigative Grand Jury released a report revealing widespread child sexual abuse involving at least 50 priests and religious leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. A few months later, plaintiff Renee A. Rice filed her lawsuit.
She named as defendants the Diocese, Bishop Adamec, and Monsignor Michael E. Servinsky, claiming they had committed fraud, constructive fraud, and civil conspiracy related to the alleged abuse, by Reverend Charles F. Bodziak, whom the plaintiff says abused her while she was a child and a teenager.
Ms. Rice belonged to the St. Leo’s Church in Altoona and was attending the Catholic school associated with her parish when the Defendants assigned Bodziak to serve as St. Leo’s pastor. Bodziak allegedly began sexually abusing Ms. Rice in the 1970s when she was about nine years old and continued until she turned 14.
Over three decades later, when the grand jury report came out, Ms. Rice learned for the first time that the Defendants were aware of Bodziak’s prior pedophilia and abuse before assigning him to St. Leo’s Church.
The defendants argued that since the abuse had last occurred in 1981, Ms. Rice’s causes of action had expired on October 23, 1987—two years after her 18th birthday—and therefore fell outside the state’s statute of limitations.
The Blair County Judge granted judgment on the pleadings to the defendants on all three claims.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reverses Decision, Allowing Case to Proceed
Ms. Rice appealed the decision, and on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, a unanimous three-judge Superior Court panel reversed that decision. That Superior Court’s ruling articulated the following:
Rice’s alleged circumstances—that she helped clean the church and played the organ there—put her into a fiduciary relationship with the diocese. The diocese, therefore, owed her a duty to disclose their ongoing cover-up of Bodziak’s history of child molestation.
Rice’s civil conspiracy claim is viable, as the last act in of conspiracy occurred in 2016, up to the date when the grand jury report revealed the Church’s cover-up activities. Prior to that, the public and plaintiff was left unaware of the Church’s efforts to conceal Bodziak’s abusive actions.
The case has been remanded to proceed in the trial court.
Meanwhile, the finding offers hope for other Catholic church clergy sexual abuse victims who may now be able to file similar claims based on grand jury investigations, including the statewide 2018 Grand Jury investigation, which revealed even more widespread abuse throughout six of the state’s Dioceses.
The ruling may also give victims an option outside of the Church-established victims’ compensation fund, which was set up in 2018.