In a decision that could have widespread impact on the ability of alleged sexual abuse victims to file claims against the Roman Catholic Church, a Superior Court of Pennsylvania panel ruled on a case brought against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
If a jury finds sufficient facts to prove a confidential relationship existed that resulted in fraudulent concealment of information, then defendants cannot gain rulings in their favor based upon the expiration of the statute of limitations.
In 2016, Renée Rice brought a case against the Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown, then-retired (now deceased) Bishop Joseph Adamec and the estate of deceased Bishop James Hogan, alleging they committed fraud, constructive fraud and conspiracy by covering up abuse within the diocese.
Rice alleged she was abused by the Rev. Charles Bodziak, from when she was about 9 years old until age 14, during his time as pastor at St. Leo’s Church in Altoona.
A conspiracy claim was also brought against Bodziak, who called himself “a victim because I’m innocent.”
She did not file legal action for the abuse, but rather for the alleged coverup to protect predator priests within the diocese. She claimed to not have learned the full scope of the alleged conspiracy until the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General issued a grand jury report in 2016 that provided details of how the diocese – under the leadership of Hogan and Adamec – took steps to shield clergy members who sexually abused children.
Rice’s attorney, Richard Serbin, argued that the conspiracy continued until Bodziak was placed on leave in January 2016 or maybe even later until the grand jury report was issued in March 2016 and that a jury – not a judge – should determine when the statute of limitations had expired. He also felt that a layperson could not have been reasonably expected to learn about the alleged coverup that was not completely revealed until the attorney general’s office could use its full investigative powers.
The diocese countered that the statute of limitations had expired, since the abuse took place in the 1970s.
In December 2017, Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva ruled in favor of the diocese, et al., dismissing the case, while citing that, in her opinion, the statute of limitations elapsed.
The Superior Court’s decision overturned her ruling.
In a unanimous opinion, written by Superior Court Judge Deborah Kunselman, the panel determined: “When, as here, a plaintiff alleges a fiduciary relationship with a religious institution or its leadership, based on her specific role(s) within the institution or based on a counselling relationship, this creates a jury question. If a jury finds sufficient facts to prove a confidential relationship, it may also find that the Church’s silence constituted a fraudulent concealment. Finally, under Ms. Rice’s alleged facts, she timely filed her third cause of action for civil conspiracy.”
The judges added: “Only a jury may determine whether Ms. Rice reasonably investigated the Diocesan Defendants for their intentional torts.”
Altoona-Johnstown Diocese could ask for the entire Superior Court to hear the case or appeal to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, but the organization’s plan is unknown. “The diocese does not comment on pending litigation,” Tony DeGol, Altoona-Johnstown’s secretary for communications, wrote in an email statement.
Serbin said the case will now be remanded back to the trial court.
“We’re back where we began, except this time we have the benefit of the Superior Court’s decision,” Serbin said during a telephone interview.
But, well beyond one case, the ruling – if it stands – could affect abuse claims across the commonwealth.
In 2018, the attorney general’s office issued a grand jury report – similar to the one done in Altoona-Johnstown – in which details were provided about how the Allentown, Scranton, Erie, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Greensburg dioceses allegedly covered up abuse.
“Number one, it gives some victims – not all – but some victims of clergy child sex abuse and other sex abuse victims the opportunity, under certain circumstances, to file claims, which were heretofore, because of prior cases from the Superior Court, considered outside the statute of limitations,” Serbin said. “This is a landmark decision and will have impact far greater than my client’s case.”
From an even larger perspective, Serbin added: “I think it’s an opinion that will be looked at by courts across the country 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.”
Individuals and organizations from outside the commonwealth already took notice.
Mitchell Garabedian, a nationally known Boston-based attorney, who represents more than 75 alleged abuse victims in Pennsylvania, said, “The decision by the court will provide many clergy sexual abuse victims and sexual abuse victims the opportunity to obtain justice, transparency and respect. The consequences of the decision probably opens the doors to massive civil litigation unlike anything seen in the past.”
Judy Jones, Midwest regional leader for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, stated: “We hope that this suit succeeds. And we hope that this case will inspire others who had their claims barred by the archaic and predator-friendly statute of limitations in Pennsylvania to come forward, make a report to law enforcement, and take steps towards holding church officials accountable.”