Pennsylvania’s top court on Wednesday threw out a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown that had the potential to greatly expand the ability of alleged sex abuse victims to seek civil damages.
Plaintiff Renée Rice in 2017 sued the diocese, retired and since-deceased Bishop Joseph Adamec and the estate of deceased Bishop James Hogan, accusing them of fraud, constructive fraud and conspiracy in regards to her alleged abuse by a priest in Altoona during the 1970s.
The diocese argued that Pennsylvania’s two-year statute of limitations had already expired when Rice filed the lawsuit, but her former attorney, Richard Serbin, argued otherwise, claiming that the defendants’ conspiracy to cover up the abuse lasted until at least 2016. That’s when the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, after viewing the diocese’s “secret archives” and interviewing witnesses, issued a grand jury report about decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled, 5-2, that the statute of limitations had in fact expired long ago – either in 1983, two years after Rice was last allegedly assaulted by Rev. Charles Bodziak at St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Altoona, or in 1987, when she turned 20 – and thus tossed out the lawsuit. Justice Christine Donohue wrote the opinion for the majority.
The justice’s decision overturned a 2019 ruling by a Superior Court of Pennsylvania panel that determined that, if a jury found sufficient facts to prove the existence of a confidential relationship that resulted in fraudulent concealment, then defendants could not gain favorable rulings based upon the expiration of the statute of limitations.
“They’re going to apply the statute of limitations the way it should be applied in Pennsylvania,” said Eric Anderson, the diocese’s attorney, in an Associated Press article. “It’s been the law, established law, for a long period of time. There’s nothing unique or different about this case.”
Serbin emailed information about the ruling to Rice on Wednesday, but he did not immediately hear back from her. He said the decision “ignores the realities” faced by victims.
“It’s certainly a disappointing opinion,” Serbin said. “Essentially, it seems to me the court is saying that a victim – well, in this case, Renée Rice – when she was abused as a young girl should have taken action to investigate her abuser and investigate any culpability on the part of the diocese.
“I think that that ignores every study that I’ve seen that reveals victims of child sex abuse take years before they’re able to deal with the demons and the pain and traumatization of being sexually abused.”
Shaun Dougherty, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests’ new president, concurred, calling the decision “profoundly heartbreaking, but not surprising news.”
“For decades, the predators and those who have enabled their behavior have long been protected in Pennsylvania,” said Dougherty, a Westmont resident. “Victims have struggled to have our collective voices be heard in our courts. Today is just another example of our struggle.”
Serbin said he’s heard reports of more than 250 similar lawsuits being filed since the 2019 Superior Court decision on Rice’s side, many citing a 2018 grand jury report that revealed sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Erie, Pittsburgh, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Allentown and Scranton dioceses. Those cases will likely not be able to move forward due to the Supreme Court’s decision.
Efforts have been under way in the General Assembly for years to create a retroactive window during which alleged victims could bring civil cases for abuse, even if the statute of limitations has expired.
“The Supreme Court ruling underscores the need for a civil statute of limitations amendment so that sexual abuse victims can gain access to PA courts,” texted Mitchell Garabedian, a nationally known attorney who has represented dozens of victims in southwest Pennsylvania. “After all, justice delayed is justice denied.”
A bill sponsored by state Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, that would create a two-year window for lawsuits passed the House this session. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-3 to move the legislation. Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, has not brought the bill up for a full Senate vote.