Erie Times-News [Erie PA]
July 21, 2021
By Ed Palattella
A state Supreme Court ruling that favors Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is blow to clergy abuse victims. Ruling benefits Diocese of Erie, others facing prospect of costly lawsuits.
- Pennsylvania Supreme Court dismisses lawsuit against Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown
- Plaintiff had sought to sue over clergy sex abuse despite expiration of statute of limitations
- As many as 30 plaintiffs had sued Catholic Diocese of Erie, hoping that Supreme Court ruling would have allowed their cases to proceed. Those cases are now likely over
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has thrown out a lawsuit that sought to create a way for child sexual assault claimants to sue in old cases, further hindering victims’ search for justice while sparing Roman Catholic dioceses statewide millions of dollars in potential claims involving abusive clergy.
In northwestern Pennsylvania, the ruling in the case, issued Wednesday, severely erodes the legal efforts of as many as 30 sexual abuse claimants who were seeking compensation from the Catholic Diocese of Erie.
The ruling also makes bankruptcy much less of a possibility for the 13-county diocese, which has already spent more than $31 million related to the clergy sex abuse scandal, including $16.6 million in payments to victims.
The Catholic Diocese of Erie would have continued to have faced as many as 30 lawsuits over clergy sex abuse if the state Supreme Court had ruled in favor of abuse victims on Wednesday — an outcome that Erie Catholic Bishop Lawrence Persico has said could have triggered the diocese to file for bankruptcy protection.
Those lawsuits are all but certain to end in light of the Supreme Court’s 5-2 decision in the case of Renee Rice, who sued the the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown over claims that it covered up a priest’s sexual abuse of her in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s.
Persico is out of the office this week and was unavailable for comment, though he said in an interview in May that how the state Supreme Court ruled in the Rice case would greatly affect the financial standing of the Catholic Diocese of Erie.
A favorable ruling for the victims would have given them a path to sue even though the state General Assembly has not adopted look-back legislation that would allow victims to sue in old cases despite the statute of limitations.
“Right now we are stable,” Persico said in May. “But if the Rice cases come down in favor of the victims, well, that is going to be another story. It has me concerned for the financial health of the diocese.”
Lawyers involved in the cases against the Erie diocese could not be immediately reached for comment. Rice’s lawyer and the lawyer for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown told the Associated Press that similar lawsuits statewide are probably not going to succeed, given the new decision in the Rice case.
“This is going to have a significant impact on the viability of those cases,” the lawyer for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, Eric Anderson, told the AP.
Focus on statute of limitations
Rice sued in 2016, past the expiration of the two-year statute of limitations related to when the abuse was alleged to have occurred. But in a ruling in June 2019, the state Superior Court reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the case and said Rice’s suit could proceed based upon claims of fraudulent concealment and other allegations.
Rice claimed the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown covered up the abuse allegations involving her, preventing her from suing sooner, and that she only learned of the allegations with the release of a grand jury report on the Altoona-Johnstown diocese in 2016. She sued in response to the release of that report.
If the state Supreme Court had ruled for Rice, other would-be plaintiffs could have been assured that they could also sue dioceses, including the Erie diocese, based on the cover-up claims. The Superior Court’s decision in the Rice case prompted plaintiffs statewide to file a total of about 150 suits against Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses, according to the Associated Press.
The Catholic Diocese of Erie was facing more than 30 such suits in August, when the two-year anniversary of the release of the sweeping 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse statewide led to the filings. Plaintiffs in fraud cases typically have two years to sue, and the plaintiffs in the new cases said they only learned that the Erie diocese had covered up the abuse allegations from the grand jury report released two years earlier.
In Wednesday’s decision, the majority of the state Supreme Court said Rice still waited to long to sue under the statute of limitations. The Supreme Court majority said the two-year statute of limitations began to run when Rice, according to her claims, was last assaulted by the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, in 1981, though the statute of limitations may have expired in 1987, when she turned 20. Bodziak has denied that he abused Rice.
Writing for the majority, Justice Christine Donohue said that law “required Rice to investigate the Diocese as a potential additional cause of her injuries during the limitations period.”
“Whether courthouse doors should be opened for suits based on underlying conduct that occurred long ago is an exercise in line drawing that includes difficult policy determinations,” Donohue wrote, referring to the state General Assembly’s authority to establish the statute of limitations. She wrote that “the judiciary is ill-equipped to make that call,” and that, “indeed, we are constitutionally barred from doing so.”
“Even in view of the reprehensible circumstances depicted in this case, and others like it, we must follow the rule of law and enforce the value judgments expressed by the General Assembly,” Donohue also wrote.
Fallout from case
Many childhood victims of sexual assault lost the right to sue in Pennsylvania when they turned 18 or were young adults, depending on state law at the time.
The GOP-controlled General Assembly has prevented the filing suits over old child sexual assault cases due to its failure to pass legislation, as New York and other states have done, that would provide a two-year window for victims and survivors of abuse to sue over claims that otherwise would fall outside the statute of limitations. The Rice case represented an attempt to get around the General Assembly’s failure to pass a look-back law and create a window to sue.
The administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf also hurt the push for changes by botching the process to get a constitutional amendment authorizing the two-year window on the ballot in the May 18 primary.
Victims’ hopes to overcome the time limits on civil litigation now rest in the Pennsylvania Senate, where Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, has signaled no interest in moving legislation similar to a bill that passed the House in April.
The lack of such a look-back law has insulated the Catholic Diocese of Erie and the other seven Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania from facing potentially costly lawsuits.
Instead, in response to the 2018 grand jury report, the dioceses created independent compensation funds for victims of abuse. Independent administrators who handled the Catholic Diocese of Erie’s fund fielded claims for six months in 2019 and then investigated them, and the diocese released the final figures in May.
The funds provided payments to claimants — a total of $16.6 million to 134 claimants in the Catholic Diocese of Erie, Persico has said — while allowing the dioceses, rather than a judge or jury, to set the amounts.
The Catholic Diocese of Erie has said it has spent a total of $31.35 million on abuse cases, including the $16.6 million in payments through the compensation fund as well as legal fees and investigative costs. Insurance did not cover the costs.
Persico said the fund also allowed the diocese to compensate victims while allowing it to remain financially viable, continue its ministries and stay out of bankruptcy. Claimants who received payments agreed to take no further legal action against the diocese.
A ruling for victims in the Rice case would have allowed claimants who did not receive payments from the compensation fund to sue, setting up a situation in which a judge or jury would decide how much a plaintiff would receive. The prospect of the Rice case leading to a slew of lawsuits was one reason the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy in 2020. It is the first and only of the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses to file for bankruptcy.
Rice’s lawyer, Alan Perer, told the Associated Press that the Supreme Court’s decision ends his client’s lawsuit. Rice has allowed her name to be used in the media. The Erie Times-News typically does not identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they consent to be named.
“Once a child knows they’ve been assaulted by a priest, it puts them on notice that they should have suspected and investigated whether or not the diocese was aware of this priest conduct, concealed it, hid it from the parishioners, including the plaintiff,” Perer said.
Anderson, the lawyer for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, hailed the state Supreme Court’s decision.
“They’re going to apply the statute of limitations the way it should be applied in Pennsylvania,” Anderson told the Associated Press. “It’s been the law, established law, for a long period of time. There’s nothing unique or different about this case.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.