"It's Far from Over," Says Attorney Who Spent Career Working for Victims of Sex Abuse by Priests
By Ivey DeJesus
March 2, 2016
reporter.jpg A reporter looks at a chart of the results of a Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into the child sexual abuse by over 50 priests in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese over the past 40 years. March 1, 2016 at the Blair County Convention Center in Altoona, Pa. Mark Pynes | firstname.lastname@example.org
In 1987, Richard Serbin, an Altoona attorney, took on a lawsuit filed by Michael Hutchinson, a former altar boy at St. Therese Catholic Church in Altoona.
Hutchinson was seeking justice from the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese and, specifically, Francis Luddy, who was priest and religious leader at St. Therese.
Hutchison, who was about 20 when he met Serbin, claimed that Luddy had begun sexually molesting him when he was 10 years old in 1977. The molestation lasted until 1982, when his family left Altoona.
Up against the formidable resources of the diocese, the case lasted for more than 20 years. The diocese spent more than $2 million in attorney fees to protect and defend Luddy, even though he had admitted sexually molesting 10 children and was a known child predator.
The case put Serbin, a 1970 graduate of theUniversity of Pittsburgh and 1974 graduate of Duquesne University School of Law, on a new path: representing the children who had been sexually molested by priests and church leaders of the Altoona Diocese.
Over the years, Serbin has represented more than 300 men and women who were sexually molested by priests and church officials in the diocese. His work has directly impacted and helped to define much of the laws that pertain to child sexual abuse cases in Pennsylvania.
Many of his clients are cited in the grand jury report released this week by Attorney General Kathleen Kane. The 147-page report provides graphic accounts of a widespread and pervasive culture of child sexual abuse in the diocese.
Investigators say that over the past four decades, hundreds of children were sexually molested by more than 50 priests in the diocese. Diocesan officials, the report concluded, knew all along of the allegations and many of the details surrounding them.
Serbin, who spoke with PennLive on Wednesday from Altoona, said the community knew that Luddy and other priests were molesting children. Why was nothing done at the time?
"Frankly, the church is very powerful," Serbin said. "I think a lot of people gave them a pass. That's referenced in grand jury report."
Indeed, investigators found that in many instances police, district attorneys, even judges looked the other way and allowed the diocese to handle child predators on their own.
"Sadly, the diocese was more concerned with its reputation than protecting vulnerable children," Serbin said. "Hundreds of children were molested and have suffered life-long consequences as result."
Serbin introduced the so-called "secret archives" as exhibits in the Hutchinson case. Those archives, which were housed in the diocesan office, many under lock and key, contained information and accounts of the allegations against predator priests. Some of the information was noted in handwritten notes and letters from Bishop James Hogan.
"Had a grand jury been convened in 1994 after all that testimony came out, after the secret archives were revealed, kids could have been saved," Serbin said. "Perpetrators could have been prosecuted and jailed and thereby prevented from molesting other kids."
Diocesan attorneys at the time objected to Serbin using files from the secret archives as exhibits. Every time he sought discovery, the diocese objected. He fought all the way up to higher courts and won.
Some of the secret archives he used are mentioned in the grand jury report, including Hogan's handwritten notes.
Law enforcement authorities did not request a grand jury investigation. The case did not go any further.
In 2008, the diocese settled on a $2.7 million payout to Hutchinson, who shortly after expressed forgiveness to Luddy.
''I don't hate Father [Francis] Luddy. I pray he gets better,'' Hutchison told The Altoona-Mirror. Hutchinson died in 2012 at the age of 44.
Serbin said he was struck that Bishop Joseph Adamec in his response to the grand jury report "conveniently ignores that he publicly supported Luddy and chose to fight the case through the court system.
"That case lasted for over 20 years, although he knew Luddy had admitted to sexually molesting 10 children," Serbin said.
Serbin, who has also represented clergy sex abuse victims in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Allentown Diocese, said most of his cases have been dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
"It's all politics," he said. "Bills have been proposed, but what happens is the diocese, the church oppose legislation and as a result [the bills] never get out of committee. There is never a vote. It's politics as usual. If legislators want to help children, the best way to do it is to pass legislation that is going to work on the side of victims of abuse rather than the perpetrators of abuse."
Serbin's case on behalf of Hutchison by and large helped to define the laws that apply to victims of sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, for example, let stand a ruling on punitive damages for outrageous conduct. The court also ruled in favor of a statute on negligent retention and supervision, which was the basis for the success of the Hutchinson lawsuit against the diocese.
"The bishop and diocese negligently retained and supervised Luddy as well as numerous other priests in the diocese," Serbin said. "Numerous other priests were identified in the grand jury report."
Ultimately, Serbin says his life's work has nothing to do with religion.
"It's about right from wrong," he says. "How easy is it to recognize that molesting a child is wrong and criminal? You don't have to have any expertise. We know in any society we do not molest children and it's wrong and criminal, yet repeatedly child predators are allowed to remain in positions where they have access to children."
Serbin says he expects more findings out of the grand jury investigation. He said there are cases involving abusive priests who are not named in the report.
"It's far from over," Serbin said.