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Slew of church abuse lawsuits hinges on state court decision

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2018, file photo, victims of clergy sexual abuse, or their family members, react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses are facing recent lawsuits from people hoping a court decision in 2019 has shown a way around time limits for filing litigation. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2018, file photo, victims of clergy sexual abuse, or their family members, react as Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses are facing recent lawsuits from people hoping a court decision in 2019 has shown a way around time limits for filing litigation. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania's Roman Catholic dioceses have been hit with about 150 lawsuits from people who say they were sexually abused as children by priests and hope a state court decision last year has shown a way around time limits for legal claims.

Lawyers involved in the litigation say they were still getting notified about new cases on Thursday and expect dozens more.

The rush to the courthouse is tied to a landmark grand jury report issued exactly two years ago that documented seven decades of child molestation within the Catholic church in Pennsylvania. State civil litigation rules generally require legal action to be initiated within two years from when someone realizes they've been harmed.

The bulk of the new cases were filed against the Pittsburgh, Allentown, Scranton and Philadelphia dioceses, but the roughly 150 lawsuits reach all eight dioceses.

“Over the past 30, 60 days the number of similar filings has mushroomed” as the two-year anniversary of the report neared, said David Dye, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

The new lawsuits build on an intermediate appellate court's June 2019 ruling that permitted Renee Rice to pursue her lawsuit against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, a case that had been dismissed by a Blair County judge in 2017 because the statute of limitations had long expired. Rice said she had been sexually abused by the Rev. Charles Bodziak, a Roman Catholic priest in Altoona, and that church officials had covered it up.

The Associated Press typically does not name people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they want to be identified, and Rice has indicated she does. Bodziak has previously denied the allegation, and his lawyer did not return a message left Thurdsay.

The lower court ruled Rice can try to persuade a jury that church officials’ silence about the priest amounted to fraudulent concealment and that the diocese may have “induced” Rice “to relax her vigilance or to deviate from her right of inquiry” by not disclosing information about Bodziak’s history or efforts to cover it up, the Superior Court said.