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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court made it much more difficult for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to get justice with a Wednesday ruling that the statute of limitations on civil suits for childhood sexual abuse is absolute — regardless of when they come forward or whether pertinent information is revealed years later.
Their ruling came in the case of Renee Rice, who filed a lawsuit for damages against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in the wake of the Pennsylvania Attorney General's 2016 grand jury report into "the sexual abuse of children in six dioceses of the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania and the systemic cover up by senior church officials." Rice alleges that she was abused by Father Charles F. Bodziak starting when she was 8-years-old in 1974 until 1981. Bodziak denies the allegations. She eventually told Altoona-area Bishop Joseph Adamec of her experiences in 2006, and he referred her to a local reporting process.
After reading about the grand jury report in 2016, she discovered that Adamec had been involved with the church practice of returning abusive priests to ministries that allowed them access to children, and that there had been other abuse allegations made against Bodziak of which the diocese had been fully aware. Rice sued Bodziak over the alleged abuse, and the diocese, Adamec, and the estate of the Bishop who had been in place when she was a child, alleging that the diocese and its leaders "committed fraud, constructive fraud, and civil conspiracy to protect their reputations." The trial court threw out her suits based on the statute of limitations but Rice appealed her case against the diocese and its leaders, arguing that, among other things, even though the statute of limitations against Bodziak's alleged actions had expired, the ongoing conspiracy to conceal his alleged crimes by the church had continued until 2016. An appeals court agreed.
On Wednesday, however, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Catholic Church, stating that the statute of limitations to file a claim for any conspiracy to cover up Bodziak's alleged crimes expired when the statute of limitations to file a lawsuit against him for those alleged crimes did. The clock for the statute of limitations under current Pennsylvania law starts ticking when the plaintiff has "actual or constructive knowledge of at least some form of significant harm and of a factual cause linked to another’s conduct," according to the court's 2009 ruling in Wilson v. El-Daief.
The court also noted that, in the 2005 case Meehan v. Archdiocese of Philadelphia, it had specifically ruled that, in cases of child sexual abuses by priests, "the plaintiffs' injuries, here, were known when the abuse occurred." In other words, under the law, when Bodziak first groomed and then abused an 8-year-old Rice, she was aware that she could sue at that time, and also that as an 8-year-old child she had a duty to interrogate the diocese's knowledge and its leaders then, or at least before the statute of limitations expired in the 1980s.
The lawyer for the diocese, Eric Anderson, said as much in his brief to the court last year, writing: “the harm involved in sexual battery cases is immediately ascertainable by plaintiffs at the time of the abuse.”
Child abuse experts disagree.
Dr. Marianne Benkert Sipe, a psychiatrist who has specialized in causes of people sexually abused by members of the clergy as minors, told Oxygen of the ruling, "It goes against all the recent knowledge that mental health experts have discovered regarding the long term effects of sexual abuse."
"A minor child does not have the emotional or intellectual maturity to understand the damage that is done to them by the perpetrator of sexual abuse," she added. "The grooming that takes place makes the child feel special. It is most often only many years later that the victim can comprehend the damage done to them by the abuse."
Zach Hiner, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, echoed Dr. Sipe's remarks in a statement to Oxygen.
"If trauma from childhood sexual violence were so readily apparent, I have to imagine that we would have a lot more folks coming forward at an early age, when in fact the average age of a survivor coming forward in the United States is 52," he said.
He added, "Most of the folks we work with in SNAP are folks who were hurt as children but took decades to come forward due to shame, self-blame, and guilt."
In a statement to the Associated Press, Rice's lawyer Alan Perer highlighted how difficult the court's position made life for victims like Rice.
"Once a child knows they’ve been assaulted by a priest, [the ruling] puts them on notice that they should have suspected and investigated whether or not the diocese was aware of this priest conduct, concealed it, hid it from the parishioners, including the plaintiff."
Efforts to create a two-year window for adult victims of childhood abuse to file lawsuits against their abusers, similar to the one passed in New York in 2019 and which exists in some form in 17 other states and Washington D.C., stalled in Pennsylvania in March 2021 due to a procedural error made my Governor Wolf that led to a stalemate between the Democratic Governor and majority Republican Senate.
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