In spite of last summer’s Grand Jury Report and the existence of compensation funds in each Pennsylvania diocese, survivors of sexual abuse remain frustrated by an archaic statute of limitations that prohibits them from seeking justice in civil court.
However, the Superior Court has ruled that a sexual abuse case from the 1970’s may move forward. The key component in the Superior Court’s ruling concerned a new count of conspiracy and fraud on the part of the abuser’s superiors.
The Superior Court on Wednesday denied a petition by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown seeking to have the full court review the decision to allow Renee Rice to proceed with her lawsuit against the diocese. Rice claims she was sexually abused as a child in the 1970s and 1980s by Father Charles F. Bodziak.
The Rice lawsuit, instead of focusing on the predator priest, charges the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown with conspiracy, fraud and constructive fraud. The lawsuit claims the diocese committed conspiracy when it failed to protect her over its interests; and holds that the diocese had a fiduciary obligation to inform Rice (as a minor) and her parents of the priest’s predatory history and the diocese’s knowledge of it.
In some ways, the counts of conspiracy and fraud are easier to prove given the mountain of evidence provided in the Grand Jury Report on each diocese in the Keystone State. This theory also avoids the defense’s argument concerning “scope of employment” when the lawsuit is focused on the priest abuser rather than the institution that aided and abetted him.
University of Pennsylvania law professor Marci Hamilton welcomes the Superior Court action.
“It is a theory that should have had legs long ago in Pennsylvania,” she said. “In other words, it’s about time.”
Hamilton underscores the idea that the decision opens the door for some cases in an institutional setting, but not most sex abuse cases that may have happened, for instance, in a home or other private setting.
The need for legislative reform, especially a window that revives expired claims, remains strong, she said.
The Pennsylvania Legislature will consider statute of limitations reform but historically, that has been a losing battle in Pennsylvania. This new theory which focuses on the Church as an institution is a better avenue even though it is far from certain how Pennsylvania courts, especially the state’s Supreme Court will interpret the Superior Court ruling. For now, it affords an opportunity to seek justice in the civil arena.
While many survivors have chosen to participate in the Compensation Fund, there are serious limitations in that program. For instance, the individual diocese is not held accountable and they do not have to provide any type of discovery (such as brought forth in the Grand Jury Report) which would demonstrate the level of culpability of the institutional Church.
Catholic Church abuse cases, like the cases against the Boy Scouts of America, are won or lost in the battle over the church’s documents. That is why access to the civil justice process is of paramount importance.
Admitted to practice law in all federal multidistrict litigation courts, the California State Bar and the Florida Bar. His philosophy is to provide aggressive, quality representations and seek fair compensation for individuals and their families who have suffered injury, death, or sexual abuse.