Altoona-Johnstown priest named in sex abuse lawsuit; attorney hopeful claims will circumvent time-barred statute

“Here we have a child predator for 30 years molesting children and they have the escape hatch.” – Richard Serbin | 

Renee Rice and Cheryl Haun have filed a lawsuit against the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese – including church leaders and the Rev. Charles Bodziak, alleging that the priest sexually molested them for years when they were children.

| 6/21/16 | Ivey DeJesus | PennLive.com |

A priest who was named a child predator in a grand jury report on widespread clergy sex abuse in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese was on Tuesday named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by two women who claim he molested them as children.

The women filed the lawsuits in Blair County court against the Rev. Charles F. Bodziak, the diocese and several church officials.

PennLive does not name victims of sexual abuse, however, Renee Rice and Cheryl Haun, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, have decided to be named by the media in their hope of helping other victims come forward, said their attorney Richard Serbin.

According to the lawsuit, Bodziak sexually abused the women – who are sisters – over a period of years beginning when they were between the ages of 7 and 9. The priest, the lawsuit states, allegedly plied the girls with alcohol to facilitate his crimes.

Bodziak was removed by Bishop Mark Bartchak in January in the wake of findings from a grand jury investigation launched by the Attorney General’s office into reports of widespread clergy sex abuse in the diocese. He was named a child predator in that investigation. No priests have been charged as a result of the grand jury report, as the statute of limitations had expired for each case mentioned in the investigation report.

Hundreds of children were sexually abused over a period of 40 years by priests or church leaders in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, a grand jury investigation has concluded.

The findings by the grand jury, released in March by the office of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, detailed widespread abuse involving at least 50 priests or religious leaders. The findings reveal a troubling history of diocesan superiors concealing the child abuse as part of an effort to protect the church’s image.

Bodziak was removed from his assignment at St. Michael’s Church in St. Michael in January.

Haun and Rice claim that three bishops of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown were made aware that Bodziak was a serial child predator, but they permitted him to serve for decades a priest with unsupervised access to children.

Allegations of child sexual abuse were leveled against Bodziak as far back as 1971, the lawsuit states. In a 2003 grand jury report, another alleged victim named Bodziak as a predator who “repeatedly engaged in sexual intercourse” with the 16-year-old minor, who was in foster care. The child was removed from foster care and blamed for having “a love affair” with a priest, the grand jury report found that year.

Over the years, other alleged victims would name Bodziak as their predator. Church officials systematically concealed the abuse and the predator priest, the lawsuit states.

Serbin, who is based in Altoona and has represented scores of victims of clergy sexual abuse over the years, hopes the lawsuits will set legal precedence. Under current law, Haun’s and Rice’s window of opportunity to file claims against their predator have timed out.

Serbin is hoping that the court will consider the counts of concealment and fraud against the diocese as being outside the parameter of the expired statute of limitations and within the legal bounds of the law.

“Current law gives the diocese the right to assert the statute of limitations,” Serbin said. “Here we have child predator for 30 years molesting children and they have the escape hatch. The predator will not serve a day in jail and those who allowed the predator to continue to molest children will escape any punishment. That’s what the existing law allows.”

A bill that would reform the state’s law on child sex crimes is in the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee. House Bill 1947, which passed the House in April by an overwhelming majority, recently was the subject of a hearing in the committee. Only one expert witness out of four argued that the proposed bill would not violate the constitution.

“Up until now Pennsylvania legislators have essentially through the laws in Pennsylvania said to the enablers of child predators that ‘we have your back’,” Serbin said. “House Bill 1947 – if made retroactive – is a step in the right direction because it gives child abuse survivors the opportunity to seek justice which up till now has been barred.”

“Here we have a child predator for 30 years molesting children and they have the escape hatch.” – Richard Serbin

The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the legislative branch of the church, has long argued that revival of expired statutes of limitations unfairly targeted the church and places many of its programs at risk. The church has argued that revival of time-barred legal windows would result in catastrophic lawsuits against the church and its dioceses.

Haun and Rice allege an identical pattern of sexual abuse at the hands of Bodziak. They claim Bodziak began to sexually molest them as children when they attended St. Leo’s Church, and McNelis Catholic School.

The sexual assaults occurred in their home, the priest’s car, the parish rectory and on outings to locations across Blair and Cambria counties.

The complaint details similar patterns of concealment by church officials.

Rice and Haun claim that, to “groom” them, Bodziak took them and friends out to restaurants and other outings, including trips to a cemetery, where he would tell the girls “scary stories.”

In both cases, the priest told the girls that was he was doing was acceptable because he was a priest.

Bishops Hogan, Adamec and current bishop Bartchak were familiar with Bodziak’s sexual interest in girls, the lawsuit claims. Prior to Bodziak’s assignment at St. Leo’s, the bishops had been put on notice as to his sexual interest in children.

Serbin explained that the case is unique given the information revealed in the grand jury report in March out of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. Investigators found that church officials knew of the abuse for decades but concealed it.

“Information was provided in the grand jury report that heretofore was not available to victims of abuse and particular my clients who gained information for the first time,” Serbin said. “My clients did not have the knowledge that other victims had come forward and reported Bodziak.”

In a written statement, Judy Jones, an associate director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said she hoped Rice and Huan felt “a sense of relief for taking action to expose the truth and therefore protect others.

“Let’s hope that any others who may have knowledge or may have been harmed by Fr. Charles Bodziak, will find the courage to come forward and contact law enforcement no matter how long ago it happened,” she said. “Silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, exposing the truth, and therefore protecting others.”

PennLive could not immediately reach the media representative of the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

Bodziak worked in several parishes within the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, including: St. Mary’s Church, Nanty Glo; St. Joseph’s Church, Renovo; St. Agnes Church, Lock Haven; St. Leo’s Church, Altoona; Christ the King and St. Stanislaus Kostka, Barnesboro;Sacred Heart Church and St. John the Baptist, Central City; St. Agnes Church, Cassandm; St. Bartholomew Church, Wilmore; St. Michael’s Church, St. Michael.

This story was updated to note that Bodziak had been placed on leave by Bishop Bartchak.

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