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Fraudulent Concealment of Clergy Abuse Does Not Toll Statute of Limitations for Decades-Old Abuse Claim: Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown

By Brian Hingston

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a highly anticipated decision in the childhood sexual abuse case of Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown[1] which added to the existing body of law in which courts have rejected allegations of fraudulent concealment and similar conspiratorial or “cover-up” arguments as a basis to avoid the statute of limitations in otherwise time-barred claims. The plaintiff, Renee Rice, filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown alleging that she was sexually abused by Diocesan Priest Father Charles F. Bodziak in approximately 1974-1981.[2] Rice did not file her lawsuit until 2016.[3] The Diocese moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that, because the alleged abuse occurred approximately thirty-five years prior, Rice’s claims were barred by the applicable statute of limitations.[4] Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with the Diocese’s position.

Rice argued that she could not have known of her claims against the Diocese until she read the report of the 37th Investigating Grand Jury regarding sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania (“Grand Jury Report”).[5] More precisely, Rice claimed that the cover-ups of sexual abuse by clergy within the Catholic Church—which were detailed in that Grand Jury Report—prevented her from reasonably discovering that she had a legal cause of action against the Diocese arising from her own alleged abuse many years earlier.[6]

Rice made two separate arguments to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in support of her claim that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until 2016. First, Rice argued that no amount of “reasonable diligence” could have allowed her to discover the acts of the Diocese because “the information regarding abusive priests was unknowable to her or any outside agency” prior to the release of the Grand Jury Report.[7] This first argument was premised on what is commonly identified as the “discovery rule,” that is, that the statute of limitations for a claim does not begin to run until the injured party discovers they have been injured. Second, she argued that the statute of limitations was tolled because the Diocese had “fraudulently concealed” from Rice crucial evidence regarding her causes of action against the Diocese.[8]  This second argument is based on the more general principal that, where a party, through fraudulent means, prevents another party from learning of a legal claim until the time for pursuing their claim has expired, the first party should not benefit from those fraudulent acts by then invoking the statute of limitations.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the defendants, and dismissed Rice’s claims as being barred by the statute of limitations.[9] With respect to Rice’s discovery rule argument, the Court focused on the fact that “Rice knew of her injury at the time of each alleged assault and she knew that Bodziak caused the injury.” Under Pennsylvania law, the discovery rule tolls the statute of limitations when an injury, or its cause, is not reasonably knowable.[10] Thus, the Court reasoned that an action against Bodziak could have been brought, at the latest, in 1987. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court also found it significant that, rather than bring suit and seek discovery from the Diocese regarding what it knew about Bodziak – when Rice, herself, knew she had been abused by him, Rice chose to do nothing until the Grand Jury Report was published in 2016.

The Court agreed with the Diocese’s argument that what Rice was really claiming was not delayed discovery of her abuse, but “ignorance of a secondary cause of the known legal injury.” Because Rice had always known she was abused by Bodziak, and because her claims for damages were based on Bodziak’s conduct, the Court ruled that Rice “was on inquiry notice regarding other potentially liable actors, including the Diocese, as a matter of law.”[11] Essentially, the Court held that there was nothing for Rice to “discover,” given that she was always fully aware she had been abused and that she had suffered damages as a result of that abuse.

Rice’s fraudulent concealment argument was also rejected by the Court.[12] Fraudulent concealment, in the context of the statute of limitations, operates as an equitable doctrine preventing a defendant from invoking the statute of limitations as a defense where the defendant’s own conduct caused the plaintiff “to relax his vigilance or deviate from his right of inquiry.”[13] However, in order to invoke fraudulent concealment as a means to avoid the statute of limitations, “the plaintiff must exercise reasonable diligence to investigate her claims.”[14]

According to Rice, no amount of reasonable diligence would have permitted her to uncover the Diocese’s involvement.[15] In considering and rejecting that argument, the Court reasoned that, prior to invoking fraudulent concealment, Pennsylvania law demands that a plaintiff conduct at least some investigation. Rice, instead, “did not exercise any due diligence.”[16] The Court noted that Rice did not attempt to investigate her claims in any manner whatsoever. Thus, even if the Diocese “failed to disclose” its involvement in potentially concealing clergy abuse from the public, its failure to affirmatively disclose did not excuse Rice’s “own failure to conduct any investigation into the Diocese as an additional cause of her injuries.”[17]

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling is significant in that it will likely have implications throughout the country. There are a multitude of states, including California, Illinois, Michigan, and Massachusetts, among others, that are currently conducting their own investigations into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in their respective states. There are also several states that have recently concluded such investigations and issued reports on the findings.

Had the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in Rice, it is likely that plaintiffs throughout the country would have employed the same arguments to attempt to evade the statute of limitations as a bar to long-expired claims, without needing to rely upon retroactive revival of claims through window legislation and similar mechanisms. Now, instead, Rice can be used as a tool by defendants to push back against the common “discovery rule” arguments made by plaintiffs in these types of cases that hinge on discovery of a “cover-up,” as opposed to discovery of their personal abuse. However, statutes of limitation continue to change with rapid pace throughout the country. Even in Pennsylvania, this victory for defendants may be short lived with the Pennsylvania Legislature attempting a change to its state constitution to open a revival window for sexual abuse claims.[18]  In fact, some state legislators may point to these kinds of court decisions to justify why the legislature must act to change the underlying law.

For organizations with potential exposure to these long-barred claims, it is crucial to stay up-to-date on the changes to the statutes of limitations applicable to these claims in your state, so that you may assess the potential implications in the even the law changes. For more information regarding the Rice decision, or how it may impact your organization, please contact Brian J. Hingston at [email protected] or 312-506-4466.

[1] Rice v. Diocese of Altoona-Johnston, et al., 255 A.3d 237 (Pa. 2021)

[2] Id. at 240.

[3] Id.

[4] Id. at 242.

[5] Id. at 242-243.

[6] Id. at 245.

[7] Id. at 245.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. at 255-56.

[10] Id. at 247.

[11] Id. at 251.

[12] Id. at

[13] See id. at 248.

[14] Id. at 253.

[15] Id. at 254.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] https://apnews.com/article/primary-elections-constitutions-pennsylvania-referendums-elections-eadb4d2b98e1d55fb04f4ee901a3fcda