Editorial | Justice won’t be denied in covered-up abuse

June 23, 2019

Attorney Richard Serbin and Renée Rice, who has accused the Rev. Charles Bodziak of abuse, speak to reporters after a hearing on Thursday, May 18, 2017, in front of Blair County Judge Jolene Grubb Kopriva.
Photo by Dave Sutor

A flood of abuse allegations and reports that religious leaders covered up the sexual crimes of clergy may have changed the legal landscape for victims pursuing justice years later – with the courts now providing an opportunity for justice where the Pennsylvania Legislature has not.

A ruling last week by a three-judge Superior Court panel opened the door for two women who had previously been halted by the state’s statute of limitations to move forward with a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

In 2016, Renee Rice and her sister, Cheryl Haun, filed a lawsuit in Blair County, claiming they were molested as young girls by a priest, Rev. Charles Bodziak, and – the key to the ruling – that the church conspired to cover up the crimes. The abuse was alleged to have occurred when Bodziak served at St. Leo’s in Altoona during the 1970s and ‘80s.

The sisters were in their late 40s when the suit was filed. In late 2017, Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva ruled that their case could not proceed because they were past the statute limit, as Pennsylvania law gives victims until the age of 30 to file lawsuits.

Victims advocates and the state attorney general have been calling on the Pennsylvania Legislature to provide a opening for lawsuits involving child sexual abuse that had occurred years earlier. 

Although a window bill passed the state House overwhelmingly last year, the state Senate has not been willing to take up the issue.

But the courts have stepped forward where elected officials, especially Republican leaders in the Senate, would not.

The Superior Court panel ruled that the Rice case may proceed despite the statute because that case is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a pattern of child sexual abuse hidden by the church for decades.

The new ruling does not guarantee that Rice and her sister will receive financial compensation for their pain and suffering.

But the decision at least opens a window of opportunity – all victims have asked for – allowing the sisters to tell their story to a jury, which would then be charged with determining whether they deserved reparations.

The Superior Court said the Blair County case extends beyond sexual abuse to also include “civil conspiracy.”

The court’s opinion said: “If a jury finds sufficient facts to prove a confidential relationship, it may also find that the Church’s silence constituted a fraudulent concealment. ... Only a jury may determine whether Ms. Rice reasonably investigated the Diocesan Defendants for their intentional torts.”

Two grand jury reports – the first involving the Altoona-Johns-town diocese in 2016, and the second covering six other Pennsylvania dioceses in 2018 – accused the church of working to protect hundreds of abuser priests from public exposure and legal action, often by moving the clergy from parish to parish.

Blair County attorney Richard Serbin, who is representing the sisters and who has represented numerous priest-abuse victims, called the court’s ruling “a landmark decision” that he believes “will have impact far greater than my clients’ case.”

“I think it’s an opinion that will be looked at by courts across the country,” Serbin told reporter Dave Sutor, “because, in addition to being well-reasoned, it shows that there are circumstances in which what might appear to be a stale claim – in other words, outside the statute of limitations – there is a basis to go forward.”

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney depicted in the church-abuse movie “Spotlight,” agreed. 

Garabedian represents dozens of abuse victims in Pennsylvania.

“The decision by the court will provide many clergy sexual abuse victims and sexual abuse victims the opportunity to obtain justice, transparency and respect,” Garabedian said. “The consequences of the decision probably opens the doors to massive civil litigation unlike anything seen in the past.”

Sisters Renee Rice and Cheryl Haun deserve to have their allegations heard in a public setting.

And so do all victims of predator priests and those who may have covered up those crimes against innocents – no matter how much time may have passed.


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