Old, New Lawsuits Could Sap Diocese Mone

NEPA News [Pennsylvania]
September 29, 2003

Mounting legal bills from a lawsuit unresolved for more than a decade and ten new lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests could sap a small western Pennsylvania Roman Catholic diocese's finances and eventually force it to take out a loan, a diocese official warned.

Even if the Altoona-Johnstown diocese is successful in the latest lawsuits, the damage may have already been done. The diocese is also fighting to get insurance companies to pay it $1.2 million, and because of legal appeals the church doesn't yet know if it will have to pay $1 million to an abuse victim.

"There's a finite limit to the amount of money available," said Larry Sutton, financial director of the diocese.

Sutton said he didn't know how much longer the diocese can continue its legal battles without tapping into donations from its 110,000 parishioners in eight mostly rural counties.

The diocese, about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, is still trying to resolve the first successful priest abuse lawsuit against it more than a decade after a jury found a man was molested by a now-defrocked priest and awarded him $519,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

In October 2000, a state Superior Court panel threw out the punitive damage award to Michael Hutchison, who the jury found was molested by the Rev. Francis Luddy, his parish priest and godfather, in 1983 and 1984. Hutchinson, who now lives in Ohio, appealed to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.

The diocese has also sued 13 insurance companies that had covered the diocese since the late 1970s, when Luddy's abuse allegedly began, seeking to recover the $1.2 million in compensatory, interest and delayed damages it paid to Hutchinson.

Sutton said the damages exhausted the diocese's insurance fund, which is paid by parishes and schools to pay premiums and deductibles, leaving it with a $637,000 deficit.

Besides the damages, the 1987 lawsuit has cost the diocese more than $1.5 million in legal fees, including $232,000 to sue the insurance companies.

Sutton said the diocese may be able to weather the 10 lawsuits filed against the diocese this year if insurance companies pay the damages.

A dozen men and the mother of another man have sued the diocese, claiming they were molested by priests, including Luddy, alleging abuse dating as far back as the 1950s.

The lawsuits don't target the priests, but instead blame the diocese, current Bishop Joseph V. Adamec and his predecessor, Bishop James Hogan, for failing to properly investigate abuse complaints against 13 other priests dating to 1967.

The lawsuits allege the bishops covered up claims of priest abuse and allowed priests they knew had a history of child sex abuse to be transferred to other churches or assignments after receiving counseling instead of referring the incidents to law enforcement. That is now required under a charter passed last summer by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which acted in response to a nationwide scandal that began in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Adamec has defended the diocese, saying he and Hogan did what was proper under laws and church guidelines in effect when the allegations surfaced.

The diocese has said in court documents that the suits violate the constitutional separation of church and state and attempt to skirt the two-year statute of limitations by alleging "clergy malpractice," questioning how the diocese disciplined priests.


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