A recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Superior Court could allow hundreds of clergy sex abuse survivors throughout the state to revive decades-old civil lawsuits previously thought to be time-barred.
The June 11th ruling stems from a case filed in Blair County Common Pleas Court on behalf of a woman who claims to have been molested by a priest in the Altoona-Johnston Diocese during the late 1970s and early 1980s. She only moved forward with her clergy sexual abuse lawsuit in 2016, however, after a grand jury report published that same year revealed diocesan officials had long worked to conceal similar allegations against same priest.
In bringing claims of fraudulent concealment and civil conspiracy against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, the plaintiff asserted that she had a fiduciary relationship with the diocese because she played organ during mass and occasionally cleaned the priests’ home. As such, church officials should have warned her of his past history of abuse.
The trial judge had previously granted the defendants a judgement on the pleadings, after finding that the case was time barred. In doing so, the lower court noted that the last instance of abuse was alleged to have occurred in 1981, when the plaintiff was 14. At the time, Pennsylvania required abuse survivors to file civil lawsuits within two years of their 18th birthday. As such, the statute of limitation on the woman’s clergy sex abuse lawsuit would have expired in 1987
In reversing the lower court’s ruling, a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court pointed to the state Supreme Court’s recent decision in Nicolaou v. Martin, which held that evidence about a plaintiff’s efforts to investigate a potential claim should be left to juries to decide.
The panel also noted the 2016 grand jury investigation, as well as state-wide probe that only concluded in 2018. The most recent investigation uncovered credible accusations against more than 300 priests in diocese across Pennsylvania, as well as efforts by high-ranking church authorities that concealed their heinous conduct for decades.
“None of the commonwealth’s prosecutors, investigators, or child-protection departments discovered the diocesan defendants’ alleged conduct for over 50 years,” Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Deborah Kunselman wrote in last Tuesday’s decision. “Thus, we cannot fairly conclude that (the plaintiff’s) similar failure to discover their alleged conduct was unreasonable, as a matter of law.”
The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese could still appeal the ruling. But if it stands, clergy sex abuse survivors will be able to revive previously time-barred claims going back decades. In order to do so, they would need to show that the 2018 grand jury report was the first time they became aware of church officials’ efforts to cover-up clergy sexual abuse allegations.
Up until last Tuesday, their only option was to seek compensation from voluntary funds established by various Pennsylvania dioceses in the wake of the 2018 investigation.
“I think it’s going to put some pressure on the administrators of these compensation funds to make sure the awards are sufficient,” the plaintiffs’ attorney told the Associated Press. “Because now there’s an opportunity for some of these people to go forward with a civil claim.”