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Pennsylvania Court Opens The Door For Possible Claims Of Sexual Abuse Against The Catholic Church

September 3, 2019

Last year the Pennsylvania legislature debated whether it should pass a law to allow claims of sexual abuse against priests to go forward, even though those claims were barred by the two year statute of limitations. Ultimately the legislature did not pass a bill to lift the statute of limitations. However, this summer, a Pennsylvania court ruled that a plaintiff could proceed with her fraud, constructive fraud, and civil conspiracy claims against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the leaders of the Diocese. In Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, the court held that it was a question for the jury whether Ms. Rice reasonably investigated her claim, such that she tolled the statute of limitations.

Ms. Rice alleged in her complaint that she was abused by a priest for several years as a minor. Her claims would have typically expired two years after her eighteenth birthday under the existing statute of limitations for tort claims in Pennsylvania. But Ms. Rice did not simply bring a tort claim against her abuser for the actual abuse. Instead, she brought fraud, constructive fraud, and civil conspiracy claims against the defendants for their role in covering up the abuse. Ms. Rice also alleged that she was not aware of the cover-up that the Defendants participated in until March 2016 when the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a grand jury report detailing the church’s cover-up. Ms. Rice argued that she had two years until the grand jury report was released to bring her claim, because she was not aware of the extensive cover up until the report was released. The trial court initially dismissed the complaint and held that Ms. Rice’s claims expired two years after her eighteenth birthday. On appeal, the court explained that, after Nicolau v. Martin, 195 A.3d 880 (Pa. 2018)[1], it is a question for the jury whether the plaintiff performed a reasonable investigation into a possible claim. The court held that it could not, as a matter of law, determine that Ms. Rice should have performed an investigation prior to the grand jury report being released. Thus, the court allowed Ms. Rice to proceed with her claim against the Defendants.

This case could have a large impact in allowing abused individuals to move forward with a claim against the church and its leaders for their roles in covering up abuse. If you or somebody you know has been abused by a member of the Catholic Church, please contact Steven Barrett to see whether the Rice case may allow your claim to go forward.

[1] This firm successfully represented Ms. Nicolau on her appeal before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.