Diocese Facing $1M in Damages
By Susan Evans
The Tribune-Democrat [Pennsylvania]
March 24, 2006
The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese will decide in the next 30 days whether to pay $1 million in punitive damages in a sex-abuse case or appeal to the state Supreme Court.
State Superior Court this week upheld the damages, first awarded 12 years ago by a Blair County jury that found the diocese negligent in supervising its employee, Francis Luddy, who was accused of sexually abusing Michael Hutchison Jr., formerly of Altoona.
"While the diocese is disappointed with the ruling and disagrees with it on a legal basis, it acknowledges the suffering the Hutchison family has en-dured," the diocese said in a statement released Thursday.
"Our prayers for their healing continue," the statement said.
"The diocese will be reviewing the Superior Court's opinion within the next 30 days before deciding if it will appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court."
The Luddy case was among the first to make public accusations of sex abuse by priests. The case gained national attention, motivated more victims to step forward and compelled dioceses nationwide to examine their policies.
A Blair County jury in 1994 found that the diocese had failed to rein in Luddy, now a defrocked priest, who continued to serve parishes even though the diocese had complaints that he had abused several children.
This week's ruling marks the third time the Luddy case has been before Superior Court, most recently to decide whether the Blair County jury's punitive-damages award was properly supported by the evidence.
Richard Serbin, the Altoona attorney who represents Hutchison, praised the newest ruling.
"There is a feeling of relief with the ruling," Serbin said, "but frankly there's a feeling of disappointment that it has required so many appeals.
"It shouldn't have taken all of these years, and no amount of money is going to undo what Michael has suffered, while Luddy never served a day in jail."
In the new ruling, the Superior Court says it is "outrageous" that the diocese ignored reports of child sex abuse.
"The court was critical of what it called the 'abysmal disregard for safety' shown by multiple leaders of the diocese who knew what was going on," Serbin said.
Despite the delays, the Luddy case has changed society's attitudes and brought about positive changes, he said.
"When I first filed these claims in 1987, the Hutchison family took a lot of abuse," Serbin said.
"And I was accused of acting in an outrageous manner as an attorney filing these claims.
"I knew there was a very strong basis, and I later learned that the problem was far greater than even I realized. Look at what's been exposed in recent years, since 2002 and thereafter, and the information is still coming out. The public now has an appreciation that this is real, and that a pedophile can be a priest, a scout leader or a community leader."
The diocese already has paid compensatory damages in the Luddy case totaling $1.4 million with interest and $1.8 million in legal fees. The diocese also has argued that its insurance carriers should pay some of the damages.
Hutchison, who said the abuse began when he was about 10 or 11 years old and continued until he was 17 in the 1980s, has said that if he received money from the case, he would use it to help others.
Serbin still has other sex- abuse cases in court, but some have been dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Susan Evans can be reached at 471-6778 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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