Thursday, July 22, 2021

PA Supreme Court forecloses strategy to pursue Catholic Church abuses

Victims of childhood sexual abuse suffered a setback when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s decision that could have allowed dozens of lawsuits over decades-old sexual abuse claims to move forward against the Catholic Church, including the Allentown Diocese, reported the Allentown Morning-Call.

In a 5-2 decision, the court ruled that the state’s 12-year statute of limitations for people abused as children to file civil lawsuits bars a western Pennsylvania woman from suing the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown over abuse by a priest she claims she suffered between 1974 and 1981. Renee Rice claimed in her suit that church officials’ silence amounted to fraudulent concealment.

An appeals court decision that Rice should be allowed to persuade a jury the cover-up prevented her from pursuing her claims revived her case after a county judge dismissed it and buoyed hope for justice for others with similar experiences.

In an opinion overturning that decision, Justice Christine Donohue wrote that whether “the courthouse doors should be opened for suits based on underlying conduct that occurred long ago is an exercise in line drawing that includes difficult policy determinations.” The courts are “ill-equipped to make that call.”

Donohue added that the Legislature is better able to examine such issues and determine an appropriate balance of competing concerns and that the state constitution bars courts from doing so.

“Even in view of the reprehensible circumstances depicted in this case, and others like it, we must follow the rule of law and enforce the value judgments expressed by the General Assembly,” Donohue said in her opinion for the majority.

Richard Serbin, the Altoona attorney who represents Rice, said the decision is a disappointing defeat for hundreds who hoped to pursue abuse claims under the legal precedent in Rice’s case. It also increases pressure on lawmakers to act on legislation that would create a limited period for abuse victims whose claims are too old to seek compensation.

“Until our legislature creates a path for justice, survivors of child sex abuse in Pennsylvania will have none,” Serbin said.

Eric Anderson, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represented the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, said the Supreme Court’s decision was correct.

“They applied the law to the facts of the case and they came out with the appropriate decision,” Anderson said. “The Superior Court stretched the law in certain ways and the Supreme Court said no.”

Victims of childhood abuse in Pennsylvania currently have until age 30, or 12 years after they legally become adults, to sue.

Serbin estimated that more than 250 lawsuits by people whose abuse claims were too old had been filed against Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania since the Superior Court decision in Rice’s case. In Lehigh County alone, at least 25 lawsuits were filed against the Allentown Diocese. Spokesperson Paul Wirth said the diocese is reviewing the Supreme Court’s opinion.

Since 2019, the Allentown Diocese has paid more than $16 million to 97 people who claimed they suffered abuse by clergy. It received 106 applications for its Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which required claimants to waive their rights to litigate against the diocese. Six people rejected offers and three claims were deemed ineligible.

Allentown was one of five Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania that established compensation funds after a 2018 state grand jury report revealed sexual abuse accusations against 301 priests, who had abused hundreds of children over several decades. The report named 37 priests from the Allentown Diocese, and the diocese added 15 names to the list.

Rice alleged the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and two bishops tried to cover up her abuse to protect their reputations and that of the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, the parish priest who Rice accused.

As a child, Rice was brought in to clean Bodziak’s living space, and was a church organist. Rice alleges Bodziak abused her at St. Leo’s Church in Altoona, including attacks in the choir loft, a car and a cemetery. Bodziak denies the allegations.

After a county judge dismissed her lawsuit as untimely in 2017, Rice appealed and the Superior Court found there were enough facts for a jury to decide whether the actions of church officials prevented her from seeking compensation for her abuse.

Rice argued that a separate 2016 grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese alerted her to allegations church officials tried to cover up Bodiziak’s actions that amounted to fraudulent concealment. She claimed that the statute of limitations should be extended to when she learned of the church’s efforts to conceal the priest’s actions.

The Supreme Court reversed the Superior Court, finding that in order for fraudulent concealment to extend the statute of limitations, Rice was required to make an effort to investigate but did not.

“What the Supreme Court said is you have that duty even if there is a claim of fraudulent concealment,” Anderson said.

Victims’ hopes to overcome the time limits on civil litigation now rest in the Pennsylvania Senate, where Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, has signaled no interest in moving legislation similar to a bill that passed the House in April. The proposal would allow now-adult victims of child sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators or institutions that did not prevent it when it happened years or decades ago.

A constitutional amendment to provide a two-year litigation window was badly fumbled by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration this year, putting it years behind schedule.

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