Stained glass windows in a church. Photo: Shutterstock

Armed with a recent grand jury investigation into decades-old sex abuse at a central-Pennsylvania Catholic diocese, a woman allegedly molested by a priest in the 1970s and early 1980s can have her lawsuit against the diocese reinstated, the state Superior Court has ruled.

According to attorneys, the decision is set to open the “courthouse doors” to hundreds of decades-old claims previously thought to be barred due to the state’s statute of limitations.

“It’s a game-changer,” attorney Alan Perer of Swensen & Perer said. Perer is representing Renee Rice, whose claims the Superior Court reinstated Tuesday.

“It could affect hundreds, if not thousands of victims, and it affects every single diocese in Pennsylvania,” Perer said.

A unanimous three-judge Superior Court panel on Tuesday reversed the decision of a Blair County judge who had dismissed the case Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown by granting the defendants’ judgment on the pleadings. The lower court had determined that Rice’s claims were barred by the statute of limitations, since the last instance of abuse occurred in 1981, when she was 14 years old. With the two-year statute of limitations beginning to run at the date of her 18th birthday, the statute of limitations for her claims expired in 1987, the court said, so it was “constrained” to dismiss the lawsuit.

However, the Superior Court panel, led by Judge Deborah Kunselman, said that recent precedent from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, as well as new information revealed in a grand jury investigation into incidents of abuse within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, meant that Rice should be allowed to bring her claims to a jury.

Specifically, Kunselman relied on the Supreme Court’s October decision in Nicolaou v. Martin, which, according to Kunselman, stands for the proposition that evidence about a plaintiff’s efforts to investigate a possible civil claim can’t be viewed in a vacuum, and should be largely left for juries to decide.

Rice had cited the state attorney general’s 2016 grand jury report that outlined widespread abuse at the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese to support arguments that the statute of limitations should be tolled under the discovery rule.

Citing the new precedent under Nicolaou, Kunselman agreed.

“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,” Kunselman said. “None of the commonwealth’s prosecutors, investigators, or child-protection departments discovered the diocesan defendants’ alleged conduct for over 50 years. Thus, we cannot fairly conclude that Ms. Rice’s similar failure to discover their alleged conduct was unreasonable, as a matter of law.”

However, Kunselman’s decision went further, and held that, regardless of any new evidence, a jury should also be able to make a determination about whether Rice could make fraudulent concealment claims, or prove that there had been an ongoing civil conspiracy.

The fraudulent concealment claims stem from allegations that, since Rice had played the organ at the church and occasionally helped clean the facility, the diocese had a fiduciary relationship with Rice, which meant the diocese had a duty to disclose that the priest who abused her had a history of abuse. That claim would be highly dependent on the facts of Rice’s individual relationship with the church. But when it came to the civil conspiracy claims, Kunselman’s ruling may be applied more broadly, attorneys said.

The defendants had contended that the conduct underlying Rice’s civil conspiracy claims was the actual abuse, which ended in 1981. Kunselman, however, said that argument was a “total misreading of the complaint,” and noted that Rice alleged ongoing injuries, as well as an ongoing conspiracy that continued until the priest who allegedly abused her, Charles Bodziak, had been removed in 2016.

“These alleged facts and resultant harms, if proven at trial, indicate the statute of limitations for her count of civil conspiracy did not begin to run until January 2016, at the earliest,” Kunselman said.

That finding, attorneys said, is significant, because it does not tether the tolling of the statute of limitations to either the 2016 grand jury investigation into the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, or the more sweeping 2018 statewide investigation, and makes it possible for Philadelphia victims to file claims as well, despite the fact that a grand jury investigation into the Archdiocese of Philadelphia occurred in 2005.

“The courts, through orderly development of the common law, are prudently doing what a few powerful legislators have tried to block,” Kline & Specter attorney Shanin Specter said. “This clears a path for justice for some of our clients and many more Pennsylvanians.”

Specter added that Kunselman’s decision did not seem to be written strictly for lawyers or judges, but rather “for victims and for the ages.”

“It’s a landmark opinion,” he said.

Specter and Perer both agreed that, with this ruling, it is likely many alleged abuse victims may now seek to bring their cases to court in Pennsylvania, rather than have their claims heard through the victim compensation funds that were set up late last year in several diocese across the state.

“Right now, I have, in the Pittsburgh Diocese and the Diocese of Greensburg and Erie, I have close to 80 cases. Eighty victims. For many of them, we’re in the process of submitting claims to these compensation funds,” he said. “Now all these people are going to have an option.”

Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck attorney Eric Anderson, who is representing the dioceses, said he is still reviewing the opinion and has not yet made any decision about how to proceed with the case.

Depending on how the defendants choose to proceed, the case could be appealed to an expanded en banc Superior Court, or to the state Supreme Court.