HARRISBURG, Pa. — A lawsuit by a woman whose lower court legal victory had given hope to others with similarly outdated claims who’d sued in the wake of a landmark report that documented decades of child sexual abuse within the Catholic church in Pennsylvania was dismissed by Pennsylvania’s high court on Wednesday.
Renee Rice’s lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown for allegedly covering up and aiding sexual abuse she said was perpetrated on her by a priest in the late 1970s was dismissed by a 5-2 vote.
Rice filed a lawsuit in 2016, but the majority of the court ruled that it was too late due to the Pennsylvania statute of limitations.
In 2019, a Superior Court panel determined that there were sufficient facts to allow a jury to evaluate whether Rice was prohibited from knowing about the alleged cover-up of her assault.
Rice was a church organist and was brought in as a kid to clean the living space of her alleged assailant, Rev. Charles F. Bodziak. The claims have been refuted by Bodziak.
The two-year statute of limitations began to run when Rice was last assaulted by Bodziak, allegedly in 1981, according to the Supreme Court majority, but it may have expired in 1987 when she turned 20. Rice did not pursue her accusations until a grand jury reports investigating the diocese’s abuse in 2016.
For the majority, Justice Christine Donohue stated, “We do not need to decide the question since it is apparent that the statute of limitations passed decades ago.”
According to Donohue, deciding whether “courthouse doors should be opened for suits based on underlying conduct that occurred long ago is an exercise in a line drawing that includes difficult policy determinations” and that courts are “ill-equipped to make that call” is an “exercise in a line drawing that includes difficult policy determinations.”
Rice’s lawyer, Alan Peter, stated that the judgment of the supreme court puts an end to his client’s claim.
“Once a kid learns that a priest has attacked them, it puts them on notice that they should have suspected and investigated whether or not the diocese was aware of this priest conduct, disguised it, and kept it from the parishioners, including the plaintiff,” Peter said.
Eric Anderson, the diocese’s counsel, praised the judgment.
“They’re going to apply the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania the way it should be applied,” Anderson said. “It’s been the law, established law, for a long time, and this case isn’t unusual or different.”
Within two years after a historic August 2018, grand jury report detailing the dark history of hundreds of abused priests across the state over seven decades, a flood of fresh cases on Rice’s side were filed.
Given the current ruling, Anderson and Peter agree that those lawsuits are unlikely to prevail.
Anderson stated, “This is going to have a big influence on the viability of those claims.”
Victims’ hopes of overturning civil litigation time limits now rest with the Pennsylvania Senate, where Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, has expressed no interest in moving legislation similar to a bill that passed the House in April, which would allow now-adult victims of child sexual abuse to sue perpetrators or institutions who failed to prevent the abuse when it occurred years or decades ago.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration bungled a constitutional amendment to establish a two-year litigation window earlier this year, placing it years behind schedule.
In Pennsylvania, many childhood sexual assault victims lost their ability to sue when they reached 18 or were young adults, depending on state legislation at the time.
Rice has indicated that she does not want to be recognized, and the Associated Press usually does not name those who allege they have been sexual assault victims unless they want to be named.
Bodziak allegedly assaulted Rice at St. Leo’s Church in Altoona, including attacks in the choir loft, a vehicle, and a cemetery, according to Rice.