Pa. court finds merit in lawsuit filed by victim of clergy sex abuse despite expired statute of limitations
By Ivey Dejesus
June 12, 2019
An opinion issued by a Pennsylvania court this week is being hailed as a victory for survivors of clergy sex abuse who are seeking to sue Catholic Church officials and dioceses but are timed barred from the legal system.
The unanimous opinion issued on Tuesday by the Pennsylvania Superior Court finds merit in an amended complaint filed by an adult survivor of clergy sex abuse, which, instead of focusing on the predator priest, charges the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown with conspiracy, fraud and constructive fraud.
The opinion reverses an earlier decision by a Blair County Court judge dismissing the lawsuit because the statute of limitations had expired.
The amended lawsuit filed by Renee Rice claims the diocese committed conspiracy when it failed to protect her over its interests and that of the Rev. Charles Bodziak. The lawsuit also holds that the diocese had a fiduciary obligation to inform Rice (as a minor) and her parents of the priest’s predatory history and the diocese’s knowledge of it.
Attorney Richard Serbin argued to the trial court that the questions raised in his client’s lawsuit amounted to jury questions and should not be determined by a court.
The Superior Court accepted all arguments in the amended complaint and agreed that all presented factual questions for a jury. Rice’s claims present an exception to the statute of limitations, Serbin argued.
Serbin, who has represented hundreds of victims of clergy sex abuse across the state, said the opinion was poised to benefit countless of survivors of child sex abuse who have no recourse because of expired statute of limitations.
“This is big,” he said. “It’s exciting. I‘ve been doing this for over 30 years and finally I see the rainbow. It’s exciting news for the people that I deal with that live shattered lives because of what they have suffered as children ...such traumatization This gives them hope.”
Rice claims she was repeatedly sexually molested by Bodziak during the 1970s and 1980s when she was between the ages of nine and 14. The conspiracy alleged in the lawsuit was a continuing conspiracy up until Bodziak’s termination in January 2016.
In December 2017, Blair County Judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva dismissed Rice’s original complaint based on the expired statute of limitations. In the amended complaint, Serbin argues that the full scope of information on how the diocese covered up the abuse and protected the predator priest only came to full light after the release of the March 2106 grand jury report into clergy sex abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Serbin points out that, similarly, hundreds of adult survivors of child clergy sex abuse across Pennsylvania did not have the full scope of information until the August 2018 grand jury report was released.
“This is something that is good news,” Serbin said.
He notes that dioceses will now see that victims have more recourse than just compensation funds, and includes exposure of dioceses.
“I think it’s going to give survivors of abuse the opportunity to expose in civil actions the complicity of church leaders in the cover up over and above what was brought out by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury,” Serbin said.
Judy Jones, a director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, applauded the court for opening the way for a jury trial. In doing so, she said, the Superior Court was using “a unique method” to help Rice and other survivors of clergy abuse have an opportunity at justice.
“We hope that this suit succeeds,” Jones said. “And we hope that this case will inspire others who had their claims barred by the archaic and predator-friendly statute of limitations in Pennsylvania to come forward, make a report to law enforcement, and take steps towards holding church officials accountable.”
No less than three separate proposed bills await action by the state Senate with regards to reform of the statute of limitations.
The Catholic Church in Pennsylvania in recent years has roiled in the wake of a series of scathing investigations that have found systemic and widespread sexual abuse of minors at the hands of priests.
Beginning with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (2005 and 2006), the 2016 report out of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the report of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury (2018), investigators have uncovered the sexual abuse of children by priests over decades, and the cover-up by church officials.
Investigators in each case have recommended the elimination of criminal statutes for child sex abuse and the creation of a two-year retroactive window to file civil suits. Currently, the statute of limitations law in Pennsylvania allows victims of child sex abuse to come forward with criminal allegations until they are 50 years old. The age cutoff for filing civil claims is 30.
Efforts to reform the statute of limitations have failed in the General Assembly for years.
Serbin said Tuesday’s opinion should put pressure on legislators to once and for all pass reform legislation.
“I see tremendous benefit,” Serbin said.