August 13, 2020
By Peter Smith
Twenty-eight people initiated legal actions against the Diocese of Pittsburgh on Thursday, cresting a wave of recent claims filed across the state against Roman Catholic dioceses in advance of Friday’s two-year anniversary of a landmark grand jury report into sexual abuse by priests.
Pittsburgh attorney Alan Perer said he was filing Thursday on behalf of numerous plaintiffs to get their claims in court before the two-year mark, which, under a legal theory being tested before the commonwealth’s top court, would be the deadline under the statute of limitations.
Fourteen plaintiffs filed full complaints in lawsuits in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas by mid-afternoon on Thursday, while 14 others filed praecipes for writs of summons short notices of intent to sue, which gets a foot in the courthouse door before the deadline. Mr. Perer represents most of those plaintiffs, but other attorneys filed on behalf of three of the plaintiffs.
Numerous other plaintiffs also have filed court claims in recent weeks against the Pittsburgh Diocese and other Catholic dioceses in the state.
Six dioceses were subjects of an Aug. 14, 2018, report by a statewide grand jury that investigated seven decades of sexual abuse that, the report said, was often abetted by cover-ups by bishops and other church officials.
Harrisburg attorney Nathaniel Foote whose firm Andreozzi & Foote filed lawsuits and praecipes earlier this year naming the Pittsburgh Diocese said his firm has filed about 60 cases statewide against various dioceses. He estimated there are more than 100 total pending cases against the dioceses named by the grand jury filed by various attorneys.
While details of most of Thursday’s filings were not immediately available, those that were posted Thursday on the court website allege abuses dating back decades. Priests named in the available lawsuits either had been identified as abusers in the grand jury report or on the diocesan website, which says they were removed from ministry and reported to authorities years ago.
But one lawsuit, echoing the language in numerous others, says the diocese “had an accumulation of knowledge of the sexual abuse by their servants which they kept from the plaintiff and the public, and the resulting dire lifetime effects of this abuse.”
The statute of limitations would normally prohibit lawsuits alleging long-ago abuse. However, the recent wave of lawsuits is based on a legal theory: that the dioceses are liable for an ongoing conspiracy and fraud that continued right up until the release of the grand jury report which, the plaintiffs claim, was the first they were made aware of the dioceses’ alleged pattern of covering up for abusers and enabling them to continue working with children.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh said in a statement: “We understand that some plaintiffs’ lawyers believe that they have two years from the issuance of the grand jury report in order to file a lawsuit. We do not believe that to be the case, but that might explain why there has been an increase in cases filed recently. These cases do not pertain to any new allegations, but are cases related to former allegations, dating back decades.”
Whether the plaintiffs even get a day in court will depend on the fate of a precedent-setting case now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The high court has agreed to review a similar lawsuit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which was the subject of a separate grand jury report in 2016.
Attorneys for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese argue that the plaintiff, Renee Rice, had enough information to file her claim decades earlier, without need for a grand jury to uncover new information. But Ms. Rice’s attorneys argue that the diocese’s alleged conspiracy and fraud, which they contend included maintaining the allegedly abusive priest in ministry and presenting itself as taking a strong stance against abuse, was uncovered only by the grand jury.
Mr. Perer, one of Ms. Rice’s attorneys, is making a similar case against the Pittsburgh Diocese.
“Our theory is that until the grand jury came out, nobody knew about the concealment and all that information about the diocese protecting all these priests,” Mr. Perer said.
Mr. Perer said of the clients filing on Thursday, some had their claims rejected or deemed unqualified for the diocese’s program of compensation for victims of abuse, while others received offers they deemed unacceptably low. Attorneys have said the amounts offered by the diocese dropped significantly in the later parts of the process in comparison to earlier offers and to offers from other dioceses.
Mr. Perer said he has about 10 other pending cases already filed against the diocese.
He also filed two claims on Thursday against the Diocese of Greensburg in Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas, alleging abuse by priests there.
Attorneys have filed various claims in recent weeks against the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Erie, Scranton and Allentown. Mr. Foote said that because the Diocese of Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, any claims have to be filed through that process.
So far the Diocese of Pittsburgh has said it hopes to avoid bankruptcy, though one of its attorneys has raised that possibility.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.
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