Save Sex Abuse Papers, Diocese Told

By Susan Evans
The Tribune-Democrat [Hollidaysburg PA]
September 26, 2003

HOLLIDAYSBURG – A Blair County judge yesterday ordered church officials not to destroy any documents that could be relevant to sex abuse lawsuits against Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese.

Judge Hiram Carpenter also heard arguments from both sides on when the statute of limitations might become an issue, but did not rule.

Both sides agreed that yesterday’s hearing was just the first of many to come in what promises to be a long legal battle.

Ten lawsuits are pending against the diocese, nine of them filed by Altoona attorney Richard Serbin. The 10th is filed by an alleged victim’s mother.

The legal actions are brought by 13 alleged victims who accuse eight priests of sex abuse.

Carpenter gave no indication of when he will rule on whether the statute of limitations should be considered now or later.

The judge did, though, agree to a request by the plaintiffs and ordered the church not to destroy anything that might be requested in discovery.

The broad order was requested yesterday and applies to everything that could be relevant in terms of any sex abuse complaints.

Only one alleged victim attended the hearing, leaving without comment when it was over.

As expected, yesterday’s hearing aired arguments on both sides, but did not come close to resolving statute of limitations issues.

Instead, the issues involved narrow questions raised in preliminary objections. The most important was when to consider how long ago any abuse took place and whether that should influence the status of the lawsuits.

Diocese attorneys are asking the court to consider the statute of limitations issue now, before they respond to claims made in the legal actions. If successful, that could cause a dismissal of the suits.

Serbin wants the court to proceed with discovery, and consider statute issues later – what’s called “an affirmative defense.”

In arguing his position yesterday before the judge, Serbin said that the rules of law require that statue of limitations issues be raised as part of the defense response, and not as preliminary objections.

Pittsburgh attorney Eric Anderson, representing the diocese, said he agreed with Serbin that the rules of law allow the statute of limitations to be raised as an affirmative defense.

“But there’s also no rule that says it can’t be raised as a preliminary objection,” he said.

Anderson said alleged misconduct occurred in the early 1980s in one lawsuit.

Serbin countered by saying some allegations may involve events that happened years and years ago, but that sex abuse by priests has “continued through March of this year.

“I’m suggesting (the diocese) follow the rules,” Serbin said, asking the judge to order diocese attorneys to first file an answer to his legal actions.

At the time of the incidents, the statute of limitations was two years after a victim’s 18th birthday. So Anderson argues that the suits should be immediately invalidated.

Serbin’s position is that the statute of limitations does not apply to the current lawsuits because he is suing the diocese and its bishops, not individual priests.

Carpenter also presided over the 1994 trial involving Serbin’s lawsuit against the diocese that resulted in a $2 million-plus jury award for compensatory and punitive damages, and the later defrocking of Francis Luddy.

He told attorneys for both sides yesterday that he intends to try to keep the process moving in the current lawsuits, including scheduling the next hearing as soon as possible.


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