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Pennsylvania High Court Bars Catholic Clergy Assault Case

The state's high court dismissed a case Wednesday, stating that the sexual abuse in question happened outside the statute of limitations

PITTSBURGH (CN) — The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the statute of limitations bars a woman's lawsuit against a Pennsylvania Catholic church and its bishops for allegedly covering up a reverend’s series of sexual assaults against her that took place more than 30 years ago. 

Plaintiff Renee Rice says that Altoona-Johnstown Reverend Charles Bodziak sexually abused her from approximately 1974 through 1981 when she was a member of St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Altoona. However, she only recently filed against the organization leader in June 2016 — 35 years after the alleged abuse stopped.

Rice said she was first assaulted by the reverend when at eight or nine years old, when he placed his hand between her legs in a car and that the abuse escalated in the early ‘80s to him fondling and kissing her “about twice a week.”

Rice first reported the abuse to authorities in 2006.

“Even in view of the reprehensible circumstances depicted in this case, and others like it, we must follow the rule of law and enforce the value judgments expressed by the General Assembly,” wrote Justice Christine Donohue for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court 5-2 majority Wednesday.

The state’s high court then reversed a recent lower court ruling that would have allowed the case to proceed and reinstated a trial court’s dismissal of the case. Rice’s attorney Richard Serbin had gotten the case reinstated before the state’s Superior Court by arguing that the church had committed civil fraud by knowingly covering up cases of child sexual abuse — citing complaints filed against the same reverend in 1993 and 2003.

“We conclude, as the Superior Court properly did fifteen years ago under the same circumstances, that the inquiry notice approach to the discovery rule required Rice to investigate the Diocese as a potential additional cause of her injuries during the limitations period,” Donohue continued in the 29-page ruling. “Whether courthouse doors should be opened for suits based on underlying conduct that occurred long ago is an exercise in line drawing that includes difficult policy determinations.”

However, two justices dissented from this viewpoint Wednesday. Justice David Wecht wrote in an eight-page dissent joined by Justice Debra Todd.

“There can be no policy justification for today’s decision either. Submitting to a jury the question of reasonable diligence would not prevent the Diocese from arguing, as it does successfully before this Court today, that any reasonable person in Rice’s position would have discovered that the Diocese was actively concealing sexual abuse from the mid-1970s until the release of the grand jury report in 2016,” Wecht wrote. "But the Majority, insisting that it knows for certain how every reasonable juror would come down on the issue, relieves the Diocese’s lawyers of that unenviable task. Suffice it to say I am unpersuaded by the Majority’s crystal-ball gazing.”

“Today’s holding conflicts with our Court’s discovery rule precedents, and will deprive plaintiffs of their right to have a jury resolve disputed factual questions. I respectfully dissent.”

In tossing out the lawsuit, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will prevent other sexual abuse survivors from pursuing decades-old claims against other members of the Roman Catholic dioceses, who would otherwise be on the hook for millions of dollars of sexual abuse claims just within the state. In the Diocese of Erie, for instance, as many as 30 lawsuits over clergy sex abuse are expected to now fold.

Rice’s attorney Serbin did not immediately respond to message requesting comment Wednesday evening nor did the Archdiocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

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