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Lawsuit against Altoona-Johnstown Diocese could change clergy sex abuse claim landscape

HARRISBURG, Pa. — It’s called the Rice vs. Altoona-Johnstown Diocese lawsuit. A woman who was abused by a member of the clergy there is suing the di...

HARRISBURG, Pa. --- It's called the Rice vs. Altoona-Johnstown Diocese lawsuit.

A woman who was abused by a member of the clergy there is suing the diocese, accusing them of a massive cover-up following details released in the 2016 grand jury report on the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.

An original lawsuit was tossed by a state trial court in December 2017.

In June, a state superior court brought the lawsuit back to life.

It was a move sexual abuse attorney Nathaniel Foote says breaks with decades of traditional rulings in clergy sexual abuse cases.

“The decision was unexpected. So we’ve been operating in an environment where we've have to traditionally say "Look, you’ve got no options until we get legislative change, we get a civil window passed by the legislature." Now, we’re like wait a second, maybe we have another option," said Foote.

He said the court changed course based on a recent decision about medical malpractice cases.

Foote compared it to a patient unknowingly having a scalpel inside of them for years.

“Basically, they applied that same reasoning. How would this woman have known that there was this decades-long cover-up to protect her abuser and other abusers absent this massive grand jury investigation in 2016 into that particular diocese?” said Foote.

Since the lawsuit was filed within two years of the 2016 grand jury report release, Foote said it falls within the statute of limitations for fraud, fraudulent concealment, and civil conspiracy.

Foote said the state superior court ruling says a jury should be allowed to hear the case.

However, Foote explained it's not so easy for survivors to run with this precedent.

With an appeal to the state supreme court looming and settlement offer deadlines happening, he said it creates risk for survivors to possibly end up with none of the above.

“Most people just know they’re not in a position to reject financial resources when they’re offered, particularly if they’re substantial. Most of our clients were of the opinion that it wasn’t worth the risk to reject the settlement offer from the fund and then go into litigation," said Foote.

An anonymous survivor who has shared the story of his abuse with FOX43 News said "Good for them!" referring to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, issuing a statement saying, in part:

"The tenacity and grit of some of the victims of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church should not come as a surprise in the current environment. Victims have found their voice and are finding ways to use the same legal system the church has hidden behind for decades to their advantage. I commend the Rice sisters in their efforts to hold their abuser and the Catholic Church accountable, using all the legal means at their disposal..."

Foote said an interesting wrinkle in the lawsuit landscape is action by neighboring states.

A civil window opened in New York Wednesday and a similar situation will happen in New Jersey at the end of this year.

Foote said it is "likely" there will be lawsuits in those states regarding Pennsylvania survivors due to accusations of abuse crossing state lines.

A spokesperson with the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese said they do not comment on pending litigation.