Richard Serbin

Richard Serbin

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown has challenged the ruling in a case that – if upheld – could significantly expand the ability of alleged childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse to file civil claims against the church.

In December 2017, Blair County Judge Jolene Kopriva dismissed a case brought by Renée Rice against the diocese, then-retired (now deceased) Bishop Joseph Adamec, the estate of deceased Bishop James Hogan and the Rev. Charles Bodziak because the abuse she alleged Bodziak committed, from 1975 or 1976 through 1981 when they were both at St. Leo’s Church in Altoona, was past the commonwealth’s statute of limitations.

A three-judge Superior Court of Pennsylvania panel overturned the decision earlier this month, stating that if a jury finds a confidential relationship existed that resulted in fraudulent concealment of information, then defendants cannot gain rulings in their favor based upon the statute of limitations expiring.

Rice’s attorney in the original hearing, Richard Serbin, argued that his client could not have known the full level of the diocese’s alleged effort to protect predator priests until the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General released a grand jury report that provided details about the alleged decades-long coverup. 

He believed the conspiracy lasted until Bodziak was placed on leave in January 2016 or maybe even until the grand jury report was issued in March 2016.

Serbin also contended a jury – not a judge – should determine if the statute of limitations applied and that a layperson could not have been expected to unearth an alleged conspiracy that required the full attorney general’s effort to reveal.

The judges agreed, saying the case should be remanded to the lower court.

Now, the diocese wants an “en banc” hearing, meaning before the entire Superior Court.

Asked for a statement, Tony DeGol, the Altoona-Johnstown’s secretary for communications, wrote in an email: “The Diocese does not comment on pending litigation.”

In a document, filed by attorney Eric Anderson, the diocese argued: “In this clergy-abuse case, the panel’s decision is inconsistent with a legacy of Pennsylvania appellate decisions. The law in Pennsylvania is well established that the discovery rule does not toll the statute of limitations in sexual abuses cases because the victim immediately knows of the injury, knows the identity of their abuser, and knows the employer of the abuser.”

Anderson’s filing also mentions a letter that Adamec sent to Rice in 2006 – 10 years before she filed her complaint – in which she was asked to share information with the diocese about the alleged abuse.

“Despite authoring a thirty-seven (37) page Opinion and Order on June 11, 2019, the panel disregarded material fact(s) of record by never mentioning the 2006 letter in its June 11, 2019 Opinion, which is of the upmost relevance to the discovery rule and conspiracy issues and arguably dispositive to resolving these issues in favor of the Diocesan Defendants,” according to the diocese’s legal document.

Serbin, who filed the original claim but did not argue the case to the Superior Court panel, said he is “not at all surprised” by the diocese’s appeal “because it’s an important decision.”

But he expressed optimism because the three-judge panel ruled unanimously in Rice’s favor.

“That gives me greater confidence,” Serbin said. "In addition, I think it was a very well-reasoned decision, and it relied upon the precedent established by the highest court in Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”

In 2018, the attorney general’s office issued a grand jury report that provided details about how six other dioceses – Greensburg, Harrisburg, Allentown, Scranton, Erie and Pittsburgh – allegedly carried out coverups similar to Johnstown. If, after all the legal proceedings conclude, the Rice case ends with a ruling that the conspiracy against her continued until 2016, then alleged victims in those dioceses could possibly claim conspiracies existed against them until 2018.

“It is a landmark decision and it has significance to many child sex abuse survivors,” Serbin said.

Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.