Altoona Diocese Challenges Abuse Suits

Post-Gazette [Hollidaysburg PA]
January 2, 2004

HOLLIDAYSBURG, Pa. -- The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese has asked a judge to dismiss 13 civil lawsuits filed on behalf of people who claim they were sexually abused by priests, because it believes the suits violate the church's constitutionally protected freedom to discipline and assign priests.

Blair County Judge Hiram Carpenter has delayed ruling on the church's motion, saying it is too early in the legal process.

"Religious communities ... have the right not to be hindered by legislation or administrative action on the part of the civil authority in the selection, training, appointment and transfer of their own ministers," the Rev. John D. Byrnes, a canon lawyer, said in an affidavit filed last week.

The new lawsuits involve allegations of abuse that go back 20 years or more, well beyond the state's statute of limitations.

The plaintiff's attorney, Richard Serbin, said the statute of limitations shouldn't apply, however, because the harm to his clients continued until last year. Serbin claims former Bishop Joseph Adamec and the man he succeeded, Bishop James Hogan, didn't properly discipline some of those priests and allowed them to continue in ministry until at least last year, when the church developed new guidelines for handling sex abuse allegations in the wake of a sex abuse scandal in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Adamec has repeatedly apologized for any past abuse and said the diocese always followed church guidelines in dealing with priests accused of molestation.

Serbin said the religious liberties argument is flawed. He said it "is an attempt to set for the diocesan position that its leaders and priests are above the law," adding that sex abuse "is a violation of the law and should be treated as such."

Byrnes' argument is based on the church view that a priest has conferred spiritual powers, and that a bishop alone can decide who meets the standards of that office and what their assignment should be.

The diocese has never used the religious freedom argument before the county court, though it did raise the issue in appealing an earlier verdict against a now-defrocked priest, Francis Luddy. The diocese is still trying to resolve that case, in which a jury awarded $519,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages.

In October 2000, state Superior Court upheld the verdict against Luddy, but threw out the punitive damage award.

The victim said he was molested by Luddy, his parish priest and godfather, in 1983 and 1984. The victim, who now lives in Ohio, appealed to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule.

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