Altoona woman attempts to revive sexual abuse lawsuit against diocese
By Paula Reed Ward
April 23, 2018
An Altoona, Pa., woman who says the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown covered up years of abuse by a known pedophile has asked the state Superior Court to reinstate her lawsuit.
Renee A. Rice, 50, filed a complaint in Blair County Common Pleas Court in June 2016 and amended it months later. She named as defendants the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, who she said abused her, as well as the diocese; retired Bishop Joseph Adamec; and Monsignor Michael E. Servinsky, who is the executor of the estate of the late Bishop James Hogan.
Her complaint includes claims for fraud, constructive fraud and conspiracy. She is seeking punitive damages.
However, her lawsuit was dismissed in December by Blair County Judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva, who found that, based on controlling case law, Ms. Rice’s claims are barred by the statute of limitations.
“At times, we reach that point in the law, owing either to binding precedent or statutory authority, where a wrong may regrettably have no redress,” the judge wrote. “The appellate courts or legislature retain the power to alter that situation if they so choose beyond the [precedential] dictates of the trial court.”
She found no applicable exceptions to the statute of limitations in the case.
But Ms. Rice’s attorneys argue that the question of whether the statute of limitations ought to apply is a factual determination to be made by a jury.
They filed an appeal and submitted her brief to the Superior Court last week. The defendants’ briefs are due on May 16.
Ms. Rice’s sister, Cheryl Haun, also alleged abuse against Father Bodziak and filed her own lawsuit. That one is on hold pending the outcome of Ms. Rice’s appeal.
The appeal comes as church officials across Pennsylvania brace for a report from the 40th Statewide Grand Jury in the coming weeks, which is expected to be the most comprehensive and expansive official report on sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church ever produced.
The grand jury is investigating abuse allegations from six dioceses across Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Allentown, Scranton, Harrisburg and Erie.
Although the abuse Ms. Rice said she endured occurred in the 1970s between the ages of 8 and 14 when she attended St. Leo in Altoona, Ms. Rice did not file her lawsuit until just two months after the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office issued a scathing grand jury report. That report detailed decades of sexual abuse and cover-up in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese that accused dozens of priests, including Father Bodziak.
Ordained in 1969, he remained active through January 2016, most recently assigned to St. Michael’s Church in Cambria County.
The lawsuit, like the grand jury report, alleges that the diocese was aware of allegations against Father Bodziak for years, was aware he had sexually abused a child at St. Agnes Church in Lock Haven in 1971, and learned in 2003 that a 16-year-old girl reported she was abused while in foster care. Ms. Rice reported her own abuse to the church in 2006.
The complaint alleges that the diocese knew even before Father Bodziak was assigned to St. Leo’s in the 1970s that he had a sexual interest in children and used his position to groom them.
The defendants, in motions that led to the suit’s dismissal, said Ms. Rice’s claims against the diocese stem from negligence, and therefore are all time-barred.
But, her attorneys argue that if Ms. Rice can sustain her claims of fraud and conspiracy, the statute of limitations would not begin until after the last act committed in the conspiracy. In his brief, attorney Alan Perer said, that was in January 2016 when Father Bodziak was reassigned to a position where he was no longer an active priest.
But attorneys for the defendants said any claims of fraud and a cover-up “are an attempt to evade the statute of limitations on the underlying abuse.”
Ms. Rice argues in her briefs that she could not have filed her lawsuit without gaining information from the grand jury report because there was no way for her to know about the cover-up and concealment by the diocese until after the 2016 grand jury report was released.
“In fact, the Diocesan defendants secreted this knowledge so effectively that police departments, child-welfare authorities and district attorneys in eight counties within the Diocese failed to uncover sufficient information upon which to file charges against the Diocesan defendants,” Mr. Perer wrote.
According to the grand jury report, the diocese kept information about abusive priests in separate “secret archives” apart from personnel files.
In addition, Mr. Perer wrote that before the abuse of Ms. Rice began, the diocese represented to her and her parents that the priests at St. Leo, including Father Bodziak, were “benevolent, trustworthy and would act in the best interests of the children whom they served.”
Were it not for the diocese’s continued conspiracy to hide the information about Father Bodziak, the appeal brief continues, Ms. Rice and her parents would never have allowed him unsupervised access to their daughter.
Ms. Rice saw Father Bodziak at church, as well as at her parochial school. In addition, the lawsuit said they went on outings, including to restaurants, a reptile farm and a cemetery. She also did chores at the church, played organ, sang at Mass and had a key to the church.
The lawsuit alleged that the abuse occurred at church, on the outings and in Father Bodziak’s car. In addition, Ms. Rice claims that he gave her wine when she did chores at the church and that he sexually assaulted her while she was intoxicated or asleep.
Eventually, Ms. Rice said, the abuse occurred as often as twice each week.
Despite the allegations, the defense argues that the grand jury report “has absolutely nothing to do with the plaintiff’s cause of action,” and that as the plaintiff, she was bound by due diligence to investigate her potential claims earlier.
If she had, they contend, she would have had access to subpoena power, which would have given her “access to the same information that was presented to the grand jury.
“The plaintiff cannot excuse her failure to reasonably investigate any causes of action sounding in fraud because it may have been difficult to obtain information.”
Throughout its briefs, the defendants relied upon Superior Court precedent stemming from two cases stemming from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2005. In both cases, the Superior Court found that the statute of limitations prohibits lawsuits filed many years later, and that the underlying claim of abuse is what drives that time frame.