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New court ruling may help older clergy abuse claims proceed

The Associated Press — By MARK SCOLFORO - Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — 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 illegally tried to cover it up to protect their reputations and that of the parish priest she claims abused her.

The 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, the late Bishop Joseph Adamec and the estate of deceased Bishop James Hogan.

A diocesan spokesman declined comment Wednesday. Its 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, Rice's attorney, Richard Serbin, said she 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 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 their perpetrators and institutions that may have covered it up.

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

Serbin said Wednesday the new decision could help some people with clergy child sexual abuse claims pursue lawsuits, those who can argue the 2018 grand jury report was the first they learned church officials were complicit in covering up abuse.

"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," Serbin said.

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. She also 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.

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This story has been corrected to say Bishop Adamec has died, not that he is retired.