The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a woman who said she was sexually abused by a Catholic priest cannot seek damages decades later.
The 5-2 decision said the state’s statute of limitations blocks Reneé Rice from suing the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Altoona-Johnstown or her alleged attacker, Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, over sexual abuse she said took place in the 1970s. Ms. Rice sued in 2016, following a grand jury report in which rampant sexual abuse in the diocese was released.
Mr. Bodziak has “been placed on leave from public ministry by the Bishop of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown as a result of receipt of an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor” and is “not permitted to serve in ministry or function as a priest,” the diocesan website states.
He has denied Ms. Rice’s allegations.
“We need not resolve the issue as it is clear the statute of limitations expired decades ago,” Justice Christine Donohue wrote in the majority opinion. She said the courts were “ill-equipped” to decide if the “courthouse doors should be opened for suits based on underlying conduct that occurred long ago.”
In a dissent that cited other state Supreme Court cases in which victims were allowed to proceed with cases long past the expiration of the statute of limitations, Justice David Wecht said there was “no justification” for Wednesday’s decision.
“Submitting to a jury the question of reasonable diligence would not prevent the diocese from arguing, as it does successfully before this court today, that any reasonable person in Rice’s position would have discovered that the diocese was actively concealing sexual abuse from the mid-1970s until the release of the grand jury report in 2016.”
Altoona-Johnstown Diocese spokesman Tony DeGol told The Washington Times, via email: “The diocese is reviewing the decision and has no comment at this time.”
For Shaun Dougherty, 51, of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the ruling was “disappointing for sure, but not really surprising,” and said that lobbying by the Catholic Church tipped the scales.
“Here in Pennsylvania, we have a long history of making it very easy for this to be covered up,” said Mr. Dougherty, who says he was abused by a priest as a youth. “Our laws have been manipulated to benefit the predator and then the organization that enables the predator. Our legislators are lobbied by lobby groups paid for by [the] church hierarchy in Pennsylvania.”
Mr. Dougherty said George D. Koharchik, a now-defrocked priest who also was named in the 2016 report and who taught and coached basketball at St. Clement School in Johnstown, began attacking him when Mr. Dougherty was 10 years old. It ended three years later.
“I grew up two blocks from the school,” said Mr. Dougherty, the newly elected president of victim’s group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “I walked to school. And the priest was I mean, he was an active part of my life for my childhood, and starting in the fifth grade. He began sexually molesting me and several other students at St. Clement School.”
Mr. Koharchik was defrocked after allegations of sexual misconduct with minors in the 1970s were revealed. He has never been criminally charged with child sex abuse.
Mr. Dougherty said the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese’s current leader, the Most Rev. Mark L. Bartchak, has offered only a $10,000 “insurance co-pay” for therapy to compensate for the abuse.
Mr. Dougherty said he likely doesn’t have any hopes of successfully suing the Catholic Church, particularly after the decision in the Rice case.
“I learned in 1991 that I was already three years out of the statute of limitations,” he told The Washington Times. “I didn’t even know what the hell [a] statute of limitation was until 1991.”
Mr. Dougherty said that along with settling into his new leadership role at SNAP, he would concentrate on getting the Pennsylvania Senate to consider a bill extending the statutes of limitation to allow victims to seek damages.