CORRECTION (Aug. 29, 2019, 2:33 p.m.): In a previous version of this story, The Associated Press erroneously reported Pennsylvania's statute of limitations on child sexual abuse lawsuits. The current age limit for victims of child sexual abuse to sue is 30, not 50.
Frustrated by the Pennsylvania Legislature, four men are taking advantage of a shifting legal landscape to file suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Scranton over decades-old allegations of clergy sexual abuse.
The plaintiffs, who range in age from 45 to 57, cite a recent Pennsylvania appeals court ruling that could make it easier for some victims of abuse to overcome the state's statute of limitations and pursue civil claims. Their suits were filed Wednesday in Lackawanna County Court and name the diocese, former Bishop James Timlin and current Bishop Joseph Bambera as defendants.
Under Pennsylvania law, victims have until age 30 to sue. State lawmakers have refused to expand the legal window for civil claims, despite a landmark 2018 grand jury investigation that found church leaders around Pennsylvania covered up decades of abuse by hundreds of priests.
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Instead, the plaintiffs in Wednesday's lawsuits are relying on a ruling from the state Superior Court to argue they should get their day in court.
The appeals court in June reinstated a woman's lawsuit against the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, saying a jury should decide if church officials acted to protect the woman's abuser through "fraudulent concealment" and lost the right to invoke the statute of limitations. The accuser said she only became aware of the church's role in covering up abuse by reading last year's grand jury report.
The men suing the Scranton diocese said they, too, were unaware that church leaders took steps to protect abusive clergy until the grand jury released its findings. The men allege the Rev. Michael Pulicare sexually abused them in the 1970s and '80s.
Diocesan officials "helped create and foster an environment that not only allowed but indeed encouraged predatory priests like Father Pulicare to sexually abuse minors and then actively conspired to cover up known cases of abuse," their lawyer, Kevin Quinn, said at a news conference with three of the four plaintiffs.
Pulicare died in 1999.
In a statement, the Scranton diocese said it did not receive any abuse complaints against Pulicare while he was alive. The diocese also said the suits rely on a "novel legal theory" to try to get around the state's statute of limitations.
Pulicare's name does not appear in the grand jury report but he was later added to a diocesan list of credibly abused priests.
His accusers declined to enroll in a diocesan victim compensation program that has paid millions of dollars to victims of sexual abuse, calling it inadequate. They said the process allows the diocese to avoid a public airing of its dirty laundry.
Only through litigation can Pulicare's accusers "fully probe who knew what and when," Quinn said.
Three of the plaintiffs — John Patchcoski, 57; Jim Pliska, 55; and Mike Heil, 55 — allege that Pulicare abused them when they were 11 and 12 years old. The other plaintiff said in court documents that he was serially abused for seven years beginning at age 9 or 10. Timlin knew that accuser was sleeping in Pulicare's bed in the rectory of Scranton's cathedral, according to court documents.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission. The accusers who appeared at Wednesday's news conference said they wanted to go public. The fourth plaintiff did not take part.
Patchcoski said he was in the hospital with life-threatening health problems last year when the grand jury report was released, and decided then that he wanted to tell his story and hold the church accountable.
"I want justice, and I want to fight, not only for myself and what I lived with for my entire life, but for everyone else who was victimized by these people," he said.