ALAN PERER: APPEALS COURT RULING OPENS DOOR FOR SEXUAL ABUSE CASES PREVIOUSLY PREVENTED BY STATUE OF LIMITATIONS
June 12, 2019
By Liz Navratil and Peter Smith
A child sex abuse survivor’s lawsuit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown — filed after a grand jury report revealed decades of abuse and cover-up there — can proceed to a jury, a state appellate court ruled Tuesday.
The unanimous ruling by a three-judge Superior Court panel could open the door for similar lawsuits over decades-old abuse to be filed against six other dioceses, including Pittsburgh and Greensburg, which were subjects of a similar grand jury report last year.
An Altoona-area woman, Renee Rice, sued the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and others in 2016 alleging fraud, constructive fraud and civil conspiracy, beginning with her sexual abuse as a child in the 1970s and 1980s and continuing as some in the church hid it.
While the diocese argued that the statute of limitations had expired, Ms. Rice’s attorney, Alan Perer, argued that she had no way of knowing about the extent of the cover-up until after the grand jury report was released in 2016. The panel of judges sided with Ms.
Rice, sending her case back to Blair County Common Pleas Court for a possible jury trial.
The ruling, her attorney believes, could provide relief for other victims whose cases fall outside the civil statute of limitations.
“All our cases we’ve argued with the diocese [of Pittsburgh], we put them on hold pending the decision in this case,” said Mr. Perer, who said he has more than 20 cases filed in Allegheny County alone. “This opens the door for all those cases. This is going to have shock waves throughout the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.”
Others were more reserved.
Eric Anderson, who represents the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, said he had “no idea” how many cases the ruling could impact. He said the diocese had not yet decided whether to appeal.
Ms. Rice has said she was sexually abused by a priest, Charles Bodziak, when she was between the ages of 8 and 14. Father Bodziak stayed in ministry until 2016, when the grand jury report was completed, despite the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese receiving at least one past accusation against him.
A judge in Blair County initially dismissed her lawsuit, saying it had been filed after the statute of limitations had expired.
While the statute of limitations has been extended to give new victims until age 30 to sue, people who were abused decades ago don’t have that same window.
“People have been waiting for the Legislature to do something about the statute of limitations and now we have the court who took up the issue and opened up the door for justice,” Mr. Perer said.
Ms. Rice’s case, he said, gives victims the opportunity to have a jury — rather than a judge — determine whether the church was engaged in a conspiracy prior to the release of the grand jury report.
In its opinion, the Superior Court said it couldn’t conclude that Ms. Rice’s “failure to discover their alleged conduct” was unreasonable, legally speaking.
“As Ms. Rice points out, prior to the Grand Jury Report, no police force, district attorney’s office, or governmental agency investigated the Diocesan Defendants for this diocese-wide, child-sexual-abuse scandal,” Judge Deborah Kunselman wrote in an opinion issued on behalf of the court. “None of the Commonwealth’s prosecutors, investigators, or child protection departments discovered the Diocesan Defendants’ alleged conduct for over 50 years.”
The court determined that several aspects of her case could reasonably be decided by a jury.
It noted that if she proved a conspiracy continued through 2016, the conspiracy charge she raises would still fall within the civil statute of limitations. In addition to the diocese, Ms. Rice has also sued Father Bodziak, former Bishop Joseph Adamec, who died in March, and Msgr. Michael Servinsky, the executor of the estate of the late Bishop James Hogan.
To succeed on fraud allegations raised in her case, the Superior Court said, Ms. Rice would need to prove several points.
First, she would need to prove that she had a “confidential relationship” with the defendants, meaning her ties with them rose beyond those of a normal parishioner and that she had reason to believe that they were acting in her best interest.
Next, Ms. Rice would have to prove that the defendants “didn’t disclose their intentional acts of fraud and conspiracy” and that the failure to disclose that would cause a reasonable person “to relax her vigilance or to deviate from her right of inquiry.”
“Whether Ms. Rice exercised reasonable diligence, prior to the release of the Grand Jury Report,” the court said, “is a factual question over which reasonable minds might differ.”
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