Diocese Hit with New Abuse Lawsuits

By Susan Evans
The Tribune-Democrat [Hollidaysburg PA]
September 23, 2004

A four-month amnesty after the Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese agreed to pay $3.7 million to settle 13 sex abuse lawsuits apparently has broken down.

Richard Serbin, the Altoona attorney who since 1987 has represented nearly two dozen alleged sex-abuse victims in actions against the diocese, is filing 10 new claims.

Yesterday, he filed legal notice in Blair County Court of his intent to bring nine new sex-abuse actions against the diocese. He said he will file the 10th, which needed an additional signature, today.

Church officials quickly fired back, issuing a written statement to news outlets criticizing Serbin for refusing to use a mediation process set up by the diocese to settle any claims made after the May 27 group settlement.

Details of Serbin's newest legal actions were not available yesterday, because he filed only a notice of intent to bring action. The names of parishes or priests are not included.

"This was to afford the diocese and I the opportunity to attempt to settle these claims. Filing these documents was necessary to protect my clients," he said from Altoona.

Such filings often are used to stop the clock if the statute of limitations is about to run out. The actual lawsuits may be filed later.

The diocese's written statement, issued from the office of Bishop Joseph Adamec, acknowledged the process has broken down.

"We regret that attorney Serbin has taken legal action against us, in spite of our ongoing offers to help his clients," the statement says.

New suits would be a setback from the highly touted accord announced in May by Serbin and the diocese. It was hailed as an end to 17 years of legal battles that wound up costing the diocese nearly $7 million.

The new lawsuits also reactivate a more than decade-long legal battle between Serbin and diocese attorneys.

The May settlement did not prevent other victims from coming forward, and the diocese committed to a review process for any new sex-abuse claims.

It is that process that apparently has not worked for Serbin and his latest clients.

"The process begins with our victim advocate, Sister Marilyn Welch, who assists in presenting the allegation to the Review Board. Our policy requires that these adults (victims) describe their experience to Bishop Joseph and the board," the diocese said.

"The process appears to be working in a number of cases. Each one that could be reasonably substantiated has received a settlement from the diocese, including payments for counseling," the statement says.

"We regret that the attorney, and therefore the people he represents, has thus far not agreed to participate in our process."

The bishop's office said "litigation is not necessary. We need dialogue to resolve the issue."

Although Serbin did not comment on the new lawsuits yesterday, in May he praised the diocese's settlement, calling it "the right thing."

But since 1987, when he filed his first action against the diocese and against now-defrocked priest Francis Luddy, Serbin consistently has accused diocese officials of covering up sex abuse by priests. He also says the diocese downplays the costs to the church.

His legal victory in the Luddy case opened the door for other suits against the diocese. As the national spotlight focused on abuse by priests several years ago, the diocese revealed that through the years $730,000 had been spent for cases involving 26 other priests.

Those costs, added to the Luddy case and the May settlement, bring the total sex abuse price in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese so far to $6.96 million.


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