A recent Pennsylvania court ruling is breathing new life into old claims of childhood sexual assault in spite of state law that puts time limits on legal action.
In June, a state appeals court cleared the way for lawsuits when new information about abuse cover-ups emerge, often decades after the alleged crimes themselves. That decision prompted at least five subsequent lawsuits against the Catholic Church, and one against the Boy Scouts of America, alleging fraud and conspiracy by those institutions.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Scranton called it an attempt to get around the lawmaking process. Legislators in Pennsylvania have not voted to allow victims a temporary reprieve from the statute of limitations, unlike their counterparts in New York and New Jersey.
Survivors of sexual abuse say the court decision is their only chance to extract information and justice from powerful institutions intent on protecting themselves.
“I thought [Father] Pulicare molested me and raped me, and that was it,” said John Patchcoski, from Scranton. “I found out [there] was a huge institution that was behind it.”
Patchcoski spoke during a press conference on Wednesday about what he learned by reading last year’s comprehensive grand jury report on sexual abuse in six Catholic diocese in the state. He is one of four men now suing the Diocese of Scranton, the current Bishop Barbera and former Bishop Timlin.
‘A fraudulent concealment’
A different grand jury report laid the groundwork for Patchcoski’s case.
In March 2016, the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a report looking into allegations of sexual abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which included multiple allegations against a priest named Father Charles Bodziak.
Renee Rice says Bodziak abused her starting at age nine, during his placement at St. Leo’s Parish in Altoona. While the alleged abuse took place 40 years prior, she argued that the Church’s efforts to cover up that abuse continued up through 2016.
Her suit was filed against the priest, the diocese, the current bishop and the estate of the former bishop.
A Blair County Common Pleas Court judge dismissed Rice’s case, but the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed that decision on appeal in June, allowing it to proceed to trial.
New information about how alleged crimes were carried out or concealed, such as that contained in a grand jury report, could justify an exception to the statute-of-limitations, the panel of judges ruled.
Victims of clergy sexual abuse weighing whether to go through one of the independent compensation programs offered by Pennsylvania’s dioceses or to wait for legislative change, now have another option.
Whether “the Church’s silence constituted a fraudulent concealment,” a crime, would also be up for debate in open court, wrote Superior Court Judge Deborah Kunselman.
“It’s certainly not a substitution for statute-of-limitations reform, but it is an opening,” said Marci Hamilton, attorney and founder of Child USA, a think tank dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect. “It will provide more information to the public about what has really been going on.”
While the Rice decision cracked the window for some lawsuits, it leaves out others, such as people with allegations of sexual abuse against a family member, said Hamilton.
Church officials have dismissed the grounds for these lawsuits altogether.
“That [Rice] theory relies entirely on a recent case that remains on appeal,” said a statement from the Diocese of Scranton.
Their attorneys also raise concerns about the fairness of suing over old allegations, where the co-conspirators or witnesses are dead.
“It’s tough from a constitutional due process standpoint,” said Matt Haverstick, attorney representing the Diocese of Harrisburg.
For the victims bringing these suits, such as Patchcoski, the lawsuits are about more than the damages they seek in their lawsuits, but about shedding more light on a difficult subject.
“Some people say we should forget about it. Some people call us liars,” he said. “I want justice, I want to fight not only for myself, and for what I’ve had to live with my entire life, but for everyone else that was victimized by these people.”