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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments this week over the application of the state’s two-year statute of limitations in sexual abuse lawsuits brought against the Catholic Church, which has engaged in widespread efforts over recent decades to suppress claims and withhold information about credible allegations against priests and other individuals.
At issue is a case brought by Renee Rice, who alleges she was abused by a priest from the Altoona-Johnstown diocese in the mid- to late 1970s. She first filed a complaint in 2006, but declined to participate in an investigation of the abuse, as she was then living in Tennessee. However, in 2016, a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a now-famous grand jury report, which revealed that Rice’s alleged abuser, Charles Bodziak, was one of several priests whose illegal and abusive activities were covered up for years by the church.
As a result, Rice filed a lawsuit against the Catholic Church alleging fraud and conspiracy. However, the case was dismissed under the Pennsylvania statute of limitations, which requires civil lawsuits to be filed within two years after a plaintiff knew or should have known about the cause of their injuries.
A higher court reinstated the case last year, based on arguments that Rice did not find out about the coverup and conspiracy, the charges she brought, until after the grand jury report was released. However, the Catholic Church appealed the case to the state’s highest court, which could issue a ruling that has widespread impact on individuals previously abused or molested as children.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments via video conference on Tuesday. The attorneys for the Diocese maintain that Rice’s deadline for filing a lawsuit against the diocese should be based on a 2006 letter the church sent to her announcing an investigation into Bodziak’s activities. However, she argues that the statute of limitations period did not start running until she learned about the 2016 grand jury, which revealed that investigation was part of a widespread coverup effort.
The question for the state’s highest court comes as several states have recently passed laws extending childhood sexual abuse statute of limitations periods, allowing survivors additional time to present their claims due to coverup activities and inherent issues that may prevent individuals from pursuing claims until later in life.
A final ruling about the impact of the Pennsylvania statute of limitations on Catholic Church sex abuse claims is not expected for several months.