COURT Allows Lawsuit against Diocese
By Russ O'Reilly
August 16, 2019
The Pennsylvania Superior Court has denied the Diocese of Altoona-
Johnstown’s application for re-argument in the lawsuit of a woman who claims a pedophile priest consistently molested her in the 1970s and ’80s in Blair County.
Wednesday’s ruling reaffirming that Renee A. Rice can pursue her lawsuit against officials in the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese reflects an evolving legal landscape, according to Rice’s attorney, Richard Serbin of the Janet, Janet & Suggs law firm.
“This decision confirms my position that the lawsuits I have recently filed in Dauphin and Centre counties will be able to go forward with the litigation process, allowing a jury to decide the factual questions raised,” Serbin stated in an email. “This is good news for many child sex abuse survivors.”
A day before the Superior Court’s decision on Rice’s case, Serbin filed two new lawsuits in Centre County against defendants including the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese stemming from the alleged abuse of two boys by a Jesuit seminarian decades ago.
Those lawsuits are filed on behalf of two accusers who attended the Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, where the seminarian repeatedly sexually assaulted both boys and raped one of them in the early 1970s. One of the two took his own life when he was 32.
In another lawsuit Serbin filed in Dauphin County against the Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg and some of its officials, a man, 67, claims he was raped by two priests from the Diocese of Harrisburg decades ago beginning when he was 9. The statute of limitations has long expired for him.
Those lawsuits, with Rice’s at the forefront, focus not so much on the sexual abuse but rather the failure on the part of the dioceses to fulfill obligations to active members of parish churches.
Rice’s case was previously dismissed by a Blair County judge on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.
But on June 11, a state Superior Court panel reinstated the lawsuit against the diocese.
Rice claims her former priest at St. Leo’s Church in Altoona, the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, began molesting her when she was about 9 years old in the mid-’70s. That molestation continued at the church, while she cleaned the rectory, in a graveyard and in Bodziak’s car until 1981, she contends. She said the abuse occurred as often as twice a week.
Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva dismissed Rice’s suit in 2017 after agreeing with the diocese that she waited too long to file it. By the calculation of the diocese and Kopriva, the time limit for filing the case expired in October 1987, two years after Rice’s 18th birthday.
However, the Superior Court panel revived Rice’s suit, deciding that a jury must decide the merits of Rice’s contention that she wasn’t fully aware of the scope of diocese efforts to cover up reports of Bodziak’s pedophilia until they were brought to light in a state grand jury report issued in March 2016.
The grand jury report found that Altoona-
Johnstown Diocese leaders covered up the abuse of hundreds of children by at least 50 priests and other religious leaders for decades. Bodziak was removed by Bishop Mark L. Bartchak two months before the grand jury report was issued by the state Attorney General’s Office. Bodziak was named as a predator priest by the grand jury.
In reviving Rice’s suit, the Superior Court pointed to a ruling that was handed down by the state’s highest court 10 months after Kopriva dismissed Rice’s suit.
The state Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed a doctor failed to diagnose her Lyme disease, that a jury, not a judge, must decide if a plaintiff in a lawsuit exercised due diligence and acted in a timely manner in investigating the wrongs he or she claims were committed. In such cases, the jurors also must make the call on whether the plaintiff missed the deadline for filing suit.
The Superior Court determined only a jury may determine whether Rice reasonably investigated the diocesan defendants.
The Superior Court’s June 11 ruling put Rice’s suit back on track for a civil trial. The diocese subsequently filed an application June 24 requesting reargument of the Superior Court’s decision.
The diocese’s application was denied.
Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol said the diocese is declining to comment on the latest development in the pending litigation.
Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.