Rul­ing low­ers bar for law­suits

Pa. court says in some cases the jury can de­cide if statute of lim­i­ta­tions has ex­pired

The Morning Call - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Scol­foro

A Penn­syl­va­nia court has ruled that an evolv­ing le­gal land­scape means a woman can pur­sue her law­suit claim­ing of­fi­cials in the Al­toona-John­stown Ro­man Catholic Dio­cese worked to con­ceal her al­leged mo­lesta­tion by a priest.

A three-judge Su­pe­rior Court panel Tues­day re­in­stated Re­nee Rice’s law­suit al­leg­ing the dio­cese and two bish­ops tried to cover up the abuse to pro­tect their rep­u­ta­tions and that of the par­ish priest she claims abused her.

The de­ci­sion could help some with abuse claims pur­sue law­suits, if they can ar­gue that

re­cent grand jury re­ports were the first they learned church of­fi­cials were com­plicit in cover­ing up abuse, said Richard Serbin, Rice’s at­tor­ney.

Calling the opin­ion a “land­mark” and “game-chang­ing” Serbin said in a news re­lease that the court agreed, “if the po­lice, dis­trict at­tor­neys, or gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies were un­able to dis­cover the Dioce­san De­fen­dants’ con­duct for over 50 years, it would be un­fair for a court to de­ter­mine Ms. Rice’s sim­i­lar fail­ure to dis­cover their al­leged con­duct was un­rea­son­able, as a mat­ter of law.”

Rice’s law­suit was dis­missed by a county judge in 2017 be­cause the statute of lim­i­ta­tions had ex­pired. But the ap­pel­late court judges say Rice can try to per­suade a jury that church of­fi­cials’ si­lence about the priest amounted to fraud­u­lent con­ceal­ment.

The Rev. Charles Bodziak has de­nied Rice’s claims he abused her while at St. Leo’s Church in Al­toona about 40 years ago.

The de­fen­dants are the dio­cese, re­tired Bishop Joseph Adamec and the es­tate of de­ceased Bishop James Ho­gan.

A dioce­san spokesman de­clined to com­ment Wed­nes­day. The dio­cese’s lawyer, Eric An­der­son, said the rul­ing was be­ing re­viewed and the dio­cese hasn’t de­cided whether to ap­peal.

The case was filed shortly af­ter Rice read a 2016 grand jury re­port into sex­ual abuse of chil­dren by priests in the Al­toona-John­stown Dio­cese. The AP typ­i­cally doesn’t name peo­ple who say they are sex­ual as­sault victims un­less they want to be iden­ti­fied. Serbin said Rice wants to be iden­ti­fied.

Bodziak was the sub­ject of an al­le­ga­tion in the 2016 grand jury re­port.

The de­fen­dants can ask to rear­gue be­fore a larger Su­pe­rior Court panel, re­quest that the state Supreme Court take it up, or do noth­ing and let it return to Blair County Com­mon Pleas Court.

The de­ci­sion comes less than a year af­ter a sep­a­rate grand jury re­port into six other Penn­syl­va­nia dio­ce­ses, in­clud­ing Al­len­town, found more than 300 priests abused chil­dren over seven decades.

The 2016 and 2018 grand jury re­ports have launched a bat­tle in Penn­syl­va­nia’s Repub­li­can-con­trolled Leg­is­la­ture to give one-time child­hood victims of sex­ual abuse a new le­gal win­dow to sue per­pe­tra­tors and in­sti­tu­tions that may have cov­ered up the abuse.

Penn­syl­va­nia dio­ce­ses are eval­u­at­ing claims and mak­ing pay­ments un­der com­pen­sa­tion funds set up af­ter last year’s grand jury re­port.

The Su­pe­rior’s Court’s de­ci­sion could af­fect that process, Serbin said. “I think it’s go­ing to put some pres­sure on the ad­min­is­tra­tors of these com­pen­sa­tion funds to make sure the awards are suf­fi­cient, be­cause now there’s an op­por­tu­nity for some of these peo­ple to go for­ward with a civil claim,” he said.

The Su­pe­rior Court cited a 2018 state Supreme Court de­ci­sion that it’s a jury’s pre­rog­a­tive to de­cide if a plain­tiff did enough to in­ves­ti­gate a de­fen­dant and, there­fore, over­come the statute of lim­i­ta­tions.

The dio­cese may have “in­duced” Rice “to re­lax her vig­i­lance or to de­vi­ate from her right of in­quiry” by not dis­clos­ing what she claims is in­for­ma­tion in a se­cret ar­chive about Bodziak’s his­tory of child mo­lesta­tion or ef­forts to cover it up, wrote Judge Deb­o­rah Kun­sel­man.

The law­suit claims the bish­ops and dio­cese knew or should have known Bodziak mo­lested girls when they as­signed him to St. Leo’s.

Bodziak asked Rice’s par­ents if she could clean his home, where he gave her wine and mo­lested her be­tween the ages of 9 and 14, end­ing in 1981, the law­suit al­leges. Rice claims he gave her a key to the church, os­ten­si­bly so she could prac­tice singing and playing the or­gan, and mo­lested her in the choir loft. Abuse also took place in his car and a ceme­tery, she claims.

She is as­sert­ing a “con­fi­den­tial re­la­tion­ship” based on her work clean­ing and per­form­ing mu­sic, as well as her age, Catholic school­ing and “the trust she placed in the dioce­san de­fen­dants to guide and pro­tect her,” Kun­sel­man wrote.

“The dioce­san de­fen­dants pur­port­edly vi­o­lated their cor­re­spond­ing fidu­ciary duty to warn her about Fa­ther Bodziak’s past as a child preda­tor,” Kun­sel­man wrote. “They thereby placed their own rep­u­ta­tion and fi­nances ahead of her safety and men­tal health.

J.D. CAVRICH/AP

Bishop Joseph Adamec, pic­tured here in 2005, is ac­cused in a woman’s law­suit of try­ing to cover up her abuse by a priest in the Al­toona-John­stown Dio­cese.

AL­TOONA MIR­ROR

This 1986 photo shows the late Bishop James Ho­gan. Ho­gan and Bishop Joseph Adamec, who led the Al­toona-John­stown Dio­cese, helped cover up sex­ual abuse in the church, a woman claims in a law­suit.

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