A year to the day after a statewide grand jury report disclosed seven decades of sexual abuse allegations against 301 Catholic priests, the Pennsylvania Superior Court Wednesday cleared what may be a path for some old claims to go to a jury.
An order issued Wednesday by the court upheld a prior opinion by a three judge panel that overturned a Blair County judge’s decision to dismiss a clergy sexual abuse claim. The claim against the Altoona-Johnstown fell outside the statute of limitations that bars lawsuits filed after an abuse survivor’s 30th birthday.
But unlike hundreds of other lawsuits for old claims that charged the church with negligence for sexual abuse, Renee A. Rice’s suit charged the church with conspiring to conceal acts that it had a duty to report.
Wednesday, the entire Superior Court upheld that finding.
“As it is now, this is the new law in Pennsylvania,” said Pittsburgh lawyer, Alan Perer who argued Rice’s appeal.
Spokesmen for the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin who argued Rice’s original case echoed Perer.
The Superior Court ruling comes as seven dioceses across the state wrap up awards from compensation funds established after the grand jury report. Church leaders said the funds that have awarded millions of dollars to survivors are an effort to recognize their pain.
Those who accepted such awards, however, have been required to sign away any rights to sue the church should the law opened up a path for civil action.
Perer said his firm submitted 87 applications to the Pittsburgh Diocese Compensation Fund, but has received notifications on only three of them.
“Two were rejected and one was accepted. A lot of these people will now have an opportunity to take their claims to court. This is going to give hundreds of victims who have been denied justice access to the courts,” Perer predicted.