(June 25, 2020) A 2019 Superior Court ruling in Pennsylvania in a sex abuse lawsuit against the Catholic church could affect the cases of many other clergy sex abuse victims. From the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the Rice case could alter the legal playing field for many child sex abuse victims, giving them a chance to have their day in court.
Pennsylvania’s prohibitive statute of limitations had previously barred the courtroom door to many people sexually abused as minors under the auspices of the Catholic church. That has been an ongoing tragedy, because studies show that most people sexually abused as children don’t speak of their abuse to anyone until they are in their fifties, well past the legal deadline in most states for filing a child sex abuse case.The Rice case could change all that for victim survivors.
The Rice Case
In 2016, Renee’ A. Rice read the 37th Investigative Grand Jury Report which detailed a systematic cover-up of pedophile clergy in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. She then sued the Diocese, Bishop Adamec, and Monsignor Michael E. Servinsky1 (“the Diocesan Defendants”). She alleges they committed fraud, constructive fraud, and civil conspiracy to protect their reputations and that of Reverend Charles F. Bodziak, her childhood priest and alleged abuser.
Ms. Rice sued Monsignor Servinsky as the Executor of the Estate of Bishop James J. Hogan. She also sued Reverend Charles F. Bodziak, but Ms. Rice has not appealed the trial court’s grant of judgment on the pleadings as to Fr. Bodziak. Because Fr. Bodziak allegedly molested Ms. Rice in the 1970s and 1980s, the trial court, relying on this Court’s precedents and the statute of limitations, dismissed her lawsuit. Ms. Rice appealed that judgment on grounds that the trial court misapplied the discovery rule, the fraudulent-concealment doctrine, and the statute of limitations for civil conspiracy.
She won that appeal, potentially altering the field for hundreds or perhaps even thousands of people sexually abused as children who had previously found their potential case chances torpedoed by statute of limitations’ laws that favored defendants like the Catholic church.
Now, any victim survivor wishing to file a child sex abuse case might be able to do so by using the Rice decision.
Merit in the Rice Case
The Penn Superior Court found merit in the legal argument that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had committed conspiracy, fraud and constructive fraud when it didn’t protect his client Renee Rice from the predator priest.
As of right now, the Rice case is the law in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, though legal experts point out that it’s a novel theory, which means the Penn Supreme Court might hear the case and find a way to overturn it.
But it is at least a hopeful development for people sexually abused as children by priests.
The Harrisburg Diocese last year paid out $12 million in settlement with more than 100 survivors as part of their victims compensation fund. The majority of those victims were time barred due to expired statute of limitations.
The 2018 Penn Grand Jury Report
Then came the 2018 ruling on the Rice case: Her attorney argued that Ms. Rice did not have the advantage of full discovery since she was not aware of the full extent of the cover-up of abuse until after the 2018 grand jury report on clergy sex abuse. He argued the diocese had failed to perform its fiduciary obligation towards Ms. Rice when it failed to protect her.
Save for the developments in the Rice case, Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations is seen by legal experts as among the nation’s most restrictive. Since the Rice ruling for plaintiffs, several sex abuse victims’ attorneys have filed complaints in court citing the Rice case.
At least two cases against the Diocese of Harrisburg have been based on the Rice case. In July 2019, Donald Asbee filed a lawsuit claiming he was brutally and repeatedly raped by two priests from the diocese. Patrick J. Duggan of Harrisburg in October filed a lawsuit claiming the diocese failed in its obligation to protect him. Mr. Duggan claims that beginning at age 13, his history teacher at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School began sexually molesting and raping him for years.
Rice Case could help other Clergy Abuse Victims
The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has filed a petition requesting permission to appeal the Rice case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation’s highest court has yet to accept or reject that petition.
Unless and until the high court overrules it, Rice remains law. That is good news for clergy sex abuse victims in Pennsylvania, and perhaps in other states where attorneys may be able to apply similar legal challenges. More child sex abuse cases may be revived based on fraudulent concealment by church officials who knew predators were loose, yet protected them and hid their crimes.
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