Diocese of Erie seeks stay in federal abuse suit as Pa. Supreme Court takes up big appeal

By Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News
October 13, 2020

The Catholic Diocese of Erie, with administrative offices at St. Mark Catholic Center in Erie, is facing a number of lawsuits claiming cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Oct. 20 will hear arguments in a clergy sex abuse case whose outcome will greatly affect abuse lawsuits and Roman Catholic dioceses statewide, including the Catholic Diocese of Erie.

The case, which claims a cover-up, is so significant that the Catholic Diocese of Erie wants a federal judge to stay a similar abuse suit against the diocese until the state Supreme Court issues a ruling in the other case in several months.

A decision in the Supreme Court case, which involves the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, will either allow or prohibit hundreds of plaintiffs from pursuing fraud-related suits in court over claims that the dioceses covered up abuse. The financial ramifications of the decision will be enormous for the plaintiffs and the Catholic Diocese of Erie and the other dioceses.

Waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule makes the most sense, the Catholic Diocese of Erie said in a filing on Friday. The diocese asked U.S. District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter to grant a stay in the abuse case filed against the diocese in U.S. District Court in Erie.

"If the Court refuses to grant a stay, the Erie Diocese, as well as Plaintiff, will be required to spend a significant amount of time and money litigating a case that may be moot in a matter of months," lawyers with the K&L Gates firm in Pittsburgh wrote. "Such a needless waste of resources creates a substantial hardship on both parties."

"The issues on appeal go directly to the heart of Plaintiff’s claims in this matter," the lawyers for the diocese, Mark Feczko and Stefanie Lacy, also wrote.

The lawyer for the plaintiff will get a chance to file a response in court, but she said on Monday that she intends to fight the request for a stay.

"We plan to oppose the motion," the lawyer, Christina Graziano, of the Baltimore area, said in an email. "Justice delayed is justice denied."

Until the state Supreme Court rules otherwise, the law in Pennsylvania gives clients such as Graziano's the right to sue for fraud and cover-up related to sexual abuse. The Supreme Court will decide whether to affirm that holding, which the state Superior Court established in a landmark ruling in June 2019 in the case involving the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

The 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie is facing a total of 31 fraud-related suits statewide, including the suit in federal court. Twenty of the suits were filed in Erie County Court, one each in Venango and McKean counties and eight in Philadelphia, the diocese has said. The diocese's insurance is not covering the costs of the cases.

The suit in federal court in Erie was originally filed in Erie County Court. The diocese moved it to federal court in Erie in August because the plaintiff lives in another state, Delaware. The Catholic Diocese of Erie would also be expected to request stays in the other cases.

All of the suits against the diocese are related to the two-year anniversary of Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s Aug. 14, 2018, release of the statewide grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church statewide.

The plaintiffs are claiming that the Erie diocese covered up the abuse and that the plaintiffs did not learn the extent of the diocese's knowledge until the release of the grand jury report. The statute of limitations for filing fraud-related suits in Pennsylvania is two years. The Associated Press has put the number of statewide fraud-related suits against Roman Catholic dioceses statewide at about 150.

In the Superior Court case that allowed for the filing of such fraud-related suits, a three-judge panel unanimously ruled that the fraud-related suit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown can advance, despite the expiration of the statute of limitations for the plaintiff to sue directly over claims of clergy sex abuse. The plaintiff, Renee A. Rice, is basing her fraud and cover-up claims on information in a 2016 grand jury report on the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

Regarding the Rice case, the Catholic Diocese of Erie's lawyers wrote in their request for a stay: "Oral argument is scheduled to occur in less than two weeks on October 20, 2020. The Erie Diocese anticipates that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will issue a decision in Rice six to nine months after oral argument at the latest, and perhaps even sooner."

The Superior Court ruling in the Rice case has given abuse victims a chance to sue despite the GOP-controlled state Senate’s blocking of legislation that would have given abuse victims an immediate two-year window to sue over clergy sex abuse even if the statute of limitations had expired.

Prompted by the state Senate, the General Assembly in 2019 started the process for amending the state constitution to allow for a two-year window, though that process could take years.

In the meantime, the Catholic Diocese of Erie and other Roman Catholic dioceses in statewide established compensation funds for victims. But victims who receive money from the funds must agree not to sue the dioceses, even if the constitutional amendment passes.

Several of the plaintiffs suing the Catholic Diocese of Erie over the cover-up claims did not file claims with the fund or the fund rejected their claims, plaintiffs and lawyers have told the Erie Times-News. The six-month period for filing claims with the Erie diocese’s fund ended in August 2019.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.