Penn. Court Ruling gives Clergy Abuse Victims Time

(June 24, 2019)  A Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling this month gives clergy abuse victims more time to file a claim.  On June 11, 2019, the state’s highest court reversed a lower court which had found the claims of a woman time-barred after she alleged that she was abused as a child in the church.  This reversal in her case potentially opens the door for many others to pursue claims which were previously thought to be time barred by statutes of limitations.

Related:  Pennsylvania Priest Abuse Lawsuit

The woman’s case – and perhaps the fate of hundreds of others – turned on the work of a special Pennsylvania grand jury.  Last summer, that jury published the results of a two-year study which found that more than 1,000 Catholic students had been abused by more than 300 priests in the last several decades in the Penn diocese. The church’s cover-up of all those crimes led to the June 11 ruling.

Church’s Cover-up Opens up SOL

The Penn Superior Court ruled on June 11 that the woman’s lawsuit is not time barred because the church engaged in fraud and covered up her abuser’s previous crimes prior to his sexually abusing her. When the plaintiff had previously filed her case and attempted to pursue a lawsuit against her alleged abuser and the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, church officials claimed not to know that her abuser had also been previously accused of abusing other children before her.  Documents uncovered in the 2018 Penn. grand jury investigation appear to show that those church officials were lying. They knew of the priest’s prior history of abuse, yet failed to take proper action.

Fraud, Constructive Fraud, Civil Conspiracy

The Penn. Superior court’s ruling explains that Ms. Rice read the 37th Investigative Grand Jury Report detailing a systematic cover-up of pedophile clergy in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. She sued the Diocese, Bishop Adamec, and Monsignor Michael E. Servinsky 1 (“the Diocesan Defendants”) a few months later. Ms. Rice alleges that they committed fraud, constructive fraud, and civil conspiracy to protect their reputations and that of Reverend Charles F. Bodziak, her childhood priest and accused abuser.

Case was previously Time Barred

Because Fr. Bodziak allegedly molested Ms. Rice in the 1970s and 1980s, the trial court, relying on the Penn. Superior Court’s precedents and the statute of limitations, dismissed her lawsuit. Claiming that the trial court should apply the discovery rule, the fraudulent concealment doctrine, and the statute of limitations for civil conspiracy, Ms. Rice appealed.

Nicolaou v. Martin

Ten months later, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided Nicolaou v. Martin, 195 A.3d 880 (Pa. 2018). The High Court emphasized the jury’s prerogative, under the discovery rule, to decide whether a plaintiff’s efforts to investigate a defendant were sufficiently reasonable to toll the statute of limitations. The court wrote that, “Nicolaou has opened the courthouse doors for Ms. Rice’s case to proceed past the pleadings stage, notwithstanding this Court’s precedents to the contrary.”

Fraudulent-Concealment Theory

The court further wrote:  “In addition, Ms. Rice’s alleged circumstances allow her to argue to the finder of fact that the Diocesan Defendants owed her a fiduciary duty to disclose their ongoing cover-up and Fr. Bodziak’s history of child molestation. By failing to disclose, the Diocesan Defendants’ silence may have induced Ms. Rice to relax her vigilance or to deviate from her right of inquiry. The trial court, therefore, erred by not permitting her case to proceed according to her fraudulent-concealment theory. 

Finally, even if a jury rejects those two tolling theories, Ms. Rice’s civil conspiracy count remains viable. She alleges a continuing conspiracy and that the last act in furtherance of the conspiracy occurred in 2016. Based upon these allegations, Ms. Rice has filed this lawsuit well within the statute of limitations for civil conspiracy. 

Accordingly, we reverse the order granting judgment on the pleadings to the Diocesan Defendants and remand for the case to proceed in the trial court.”

Facts Alleged in the Complaint

Ms. Rice alleges in her First Amended Complaint that she belonged – as a child and teenager – to St. Leo’s Church in Altoona. She attended the Catholic school associated with her parish when the Diocesan Defendants assigned Fr. Bodziak to serve as St. Leo’s pastor. They did so despite knowing or having reason to know he had molested young girls. Fr. Bodziak began sexually abusing Ms. Rice in the mid-1970s when she was about nine years old. He  continued abusing her until she turned 14.

Fr. Bodziak asked Ms. Rice’s parents if she could clean the rectory where he lived. They agreed, and while she cleaned his home, the priest gave Ms. Rice wine and sexually assault her. Ms. Rice also played the organ at St. Leo’s Church and sang at masses. Under the auspices of allowing her to practice her music, Fr. Bodziak gave her a key to the church. Then he repeatedly kissed and molested her in the choir loft. The abuse increased to twice a week – in the priest’s car, a nearby cemetery, the rectory, the church itself. Some 35 years later, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania convened the 37th Statewide Investigative Grand Jury to examine child-sexual assault throughout the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. It issued an official report of its findings on March 1, 2016.

From that report, Ms. Rice first learned that the Diocesan Defendants knew or should have known of Fr. Bodziak’s pedophilia prior to assigning him to St. Leo’s Church. The Defendants kept the evidence about abusive priests in a secret archive, separate from other personnel files. Ms. Rice asserted a confidential relationship between her and the Diocesan Defendants, based upon her work as a parish organist, cantor, and rectory cleaner, coupled with her young age, Catholic schooling, and the trust she had placed in the Diocesan Defendants to guide and to protect her.

The high court ruled that the “Diocesan Defendants purportedly violated their corresponding fiduciary duty to warn her about Fr. Bodziak’s past as a child predator. They thereby placed their own reputation and finances ahead of her safety and mental health.”

Penn. Court Ruling gives Clergy Abuse Victims Time

The case – WL 2427919 – is Renee’ A. RICE v DIOCESE OF ALTOONA-JOHNSTOWN, Bishop Joseph Adamec (Retired), Monsignor Michael E. Servinsky, Executor of the Estate of Bishop James Hogan, Deceased, and Reverend Charles F. Bodziak.

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