Lawsuit against diocese dismissed

Altoona Mirror [Altoona PA]

July 22, 2021

By Phil Ray

Court rules window for Rice to file suit has long since passed

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled an Altoona woman cannot sue the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown for sexual abuse she allegedly suffered from a priest beginning in 1974 when she was 8 or 9 years old.

The court said the window to file the suit had long since passed.

Renee Rice contended the allegedabuse by the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak of St. Leo’s Church continued until 1981, but she did not file a lawsuit against the diocese and two of its bishops, James Hogan and Joseph Adamec, both deceased, until after she had read a 2016 Pennsylvania grand jury report. That state investigation alleged hundreds of children had been abused over many decades by diocesan clergy and that the diocese had remained silent despite knowing of the incidents.

Bodziak has denied the abuse occurred.

The lawsuit, filed 35 years after the last alleged incidents of her abuse, was dismissed by former Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva,who ruled the statute of limitations to file the suit expired two years after Rice’s 18th birthday.

Rice, through Altoona attorney Richard Serbin and Pittsburgh attorney Alan Perer, appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court, pointing out Rice never knew the extent of the diocese’s cover-up of child sexual abuse until she read the grand jury report. They charged the diocese with fraudulent concealment — of knowing of the abuse but remaining silent.

Rice’s attorneys said she had a “special, confidential relationship” with the diocese because she played the organ, sang and cleaned the rectory where Bodziak lived.

She trusted the diocese to guide and protect her, the lawsuit claimed.

Arguing before the Superior Court, Rice’s attorneys contended the statute of limitations in this case should be two years following the issuance of the grand jury report.

The Superior Court reinstated the Rice lawsuit, pointing out it would be up to a jury to decide if Rice had used “due diligence” in investigating the diocese involvement.

The diocese, through its Pittsburgh attorney Eric Anderson, argued the church did not mislead Rice.

Fraudulent concealment did not apply in this case because the diocese did not make any factual misrepresentations to Rice, Anderson argued. The diocese denied there was any special relationship between it and Rice.

The Supreme Court summed up the diocese’s point of view, stating, “Rice knew she was abused and did not need any further information from the diocese to file suit against Bodziak.”

The state’s highest court by a vote of five-to-two overturned the Superior Court’s ruling.

A 29-page opinion written by Justice Christine Donohue stated, “Whether courthouse doors should be opened for suits based on underlying conduct that occurred long ago is an exercise in line drawing that include difficult policy determinations.”

“The judiciary is ill-equipped to make that call,” the opinion said.

The Supreme Court placed the burden of determining social policy issues and appropriate balancing concerns with the Pennsylvania General Assembly

“We therefore reverse the order of the Superior Court and reinstate (Kopriva’s) dismissal of the case,” the opinion concluded.

Justices Max Baer, Thomas G. Saylor, Kevin M. Dougherty and Sallie Updyke Mundy joined the Donohue opinion.

Justice David N. Wecht issued a dissenting opinion, stating, “There can be no policy justification for today’s decision.”

He said a jury should have been given the opportunity to decide whether Rice had acted with “reasonable diligence” in her handling of the abuse that she faced during her childhood.

His opinion was joined by Justice Debra Todd.

Reaction to the decision was swift.

Anderson, representing the diocese said, “I believe the Supreme Court made the right decision. It applied the law the way it should be applied, not the way the Superior Court wanted it to be.”

Serbin, who has spent 34 years arguing on behalf of abused children, said the decision “was extremely disappointing. The dissenting opinion was correct.”

He said the issue of how to deal with the many, very old child sexual abuse cases is up to the General Assembly.

“It is up to the Pennsylvania Legislature to bring some sense of justice to child abuse survivors,” he said.

He favors the establishment of a two-year window that would allow abuse victims to present their cases. Eighteen states have provided such a window, Serbin said.

“Studies I have seen on sexually abused children say it takes years to overcome the difficulty of speaking out,” Serbin said.

Perer said he and Serbin were not asking the Supreme Court to rule on the validity of Rice’s lawsuit but for a jury to decide if the case should move forward.

Although Bodziak, who is now retired, was not a defendant in the lawsuit, his Altoona attorney, R. Thomas Forr, said he continues to maintain his innocence,

“Judge Kopriva made the right decision originally. The other attorneys were attempting to create new law. I am relieved by the results,” he said.