Pa. Court to Review Diocese Lawsuit
By Phil Ray
September 6, 2020
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear arguments in October on an Altoona woman’s attempt to redefine the statute of limitations as it applies to her 2016 sexual abuse lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Renee Rice, 52, has sued the diocese, contending she was a child victim of sexual abuse committed by a priest at the former St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Altoona.
The incidents of abuse, Rice alleges, occurred when she was between the ages of 9 and 14, but her lawsuit was not filed until 2016, subsequent to a statewide grand jury report that accused the diocese of intentionally covering up child sexual abuse cases for decades.
Rice’s lawsuit was dismissed by now Senior Judge Jolene G. Kopriva of Blair County, who ruled the case was governed by a two-year statute of limitations, meaning that Rice should have filed her lawsuit by 1980, when she was 20 years old.
However, Rice’s Altoona attorney, Richard Serbin, appealed the local ruling to the state Superior Court, arguing that the church had committed civil fraud by knowingly covering up cases of child sexual abuse.
According to the lawsuit, the diocese knew about improper sexual abuse by the accused priest, Father Charles F. Bodziak, due to complaints filed against him in 1993 and 2003.
Those complaints, it is charged, were placed in the diocese’s “secret archives” and never revealed to Rice.
She wasn’t aware of alleged cover-up until it was revealed in the 2016 statewide grand jury report.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court vacated the Blair County judge’s ruling and ordered the case be returned to Blair County for further action.
The diocese asked for review by the state’s highest court, and that was granted on March 2.
The Supreme Court, in a schedule released this week, has scheduled arguments for Oct. 20 via videoconference in the Supreme Court chambers in Pittsburgh.
The priest named in the case, Bodziak, has denied he sexually abused Rice when, as a youngster, she played the organ in the church and performed other duties around the church.
Serbin argued before the Superior Court that the civil fraud committed by the church, and the close relationship the priest had with Rice as a child, meant the statute of limitations should not have started until 2016 when Rice learned of the full extent of the diocese’s involvement in covering up its sexual abuse problems.
He also argued that it will be up to a jury to decide if Rice used “due diligence” in bringing her lawsuit.
The diocese, through its attorney, Eric N. Anderson of Pittsburgh, is asking the Supreme Court to reinstate Kopriva’s order of dismissal.
Anderson contended Rice did not use “due diligence” filing her lawsuit.
The attorney for the church stated in his brief that, “The holdings of the Rice panel (the Superior Court) are fundamentally flawed and represent a major shift in Pennsylvania law.”
The Superior Court’s decision, the diocese claimed, effectively repeals the statute of limitations altogether.