Diocese Ordered to Pay $1.7 Million in Damages to Man Abused in 1970s

By Joe Mandak
Associated Press, carried in Beaver County Times [Pittsburgh PA]
March 24, 2006

PITTSBURGH - The Altoona-Johnstown Roman Catholic Diocese must pay $1.7 million in punitive damages to a man abused by a priest in the 1970s because the former bishop's oversight of pedophile priests was "outrageous," an appeals court ruled.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling ends the appellate court's third review of a 1994 verdict that awarded Michael S. Hutchison Jr. $519,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. With interest, the punitive damages now total about $1.7 million.

Hutchison's attorney, Richard Serbin, said documents detailing former Bishop James Hogan's mismanagement of other pedophile priests were the key to the decision.

In one instance, Hogan transferred a priest to a convent, but learned from the sisters there that the priest was still bringing children to his sleeping quarters.

"I deem it prudent to send along a little precautionary suggestion. ... My suggestion? For the time being, cool any and all association with the youth," Hogan wrote to that priest in 1987. "You already know of the storm raised by the irate mother in Johnstown. Let's get the case settled first. Don't jeopardize it. For it could yet cause you and the Diocese a bit of heartache."

Hutchison, 39, now of Ohio, sued the diocese in 1987, alleging he was molested on hundreds of occasions by a since-defrocked priest, Francis Luddy. Luddy was Hutchison's godfather and parish priest at the time.

At trial, Luddy denied molesting Hutchison, but acknowledged abusing five other boys.

The Superior Court threw out the verdict when the diocese first appealed, but the state Supreme Court overruled and ordered the Superior Court to reconsider.

The Superior Court then reinstated the compensatory damages, but still barred the $1 million in punitive damages. But the Supreme Court said punitive damages could apply. The Superior Court reviewed all the evidence in the case, prompting Wednesday's ruling.

The court found the most damaging evidence was Hogan's deposition in 1988, when he denied that any other priests were accused of pedophilia while he headed the diocese from 1966 to 1987. That was contradicted by diocesan documents that Serbin introduced, showing how Hogan handled pedophilia allegations against several other priests as early as 1972.

Hogan has since died.

The diocese issued a short statement about the court opinion Thursday.

"While the diocese is disappointed with yesterday's ruling and disagrees with it on a legal basis, it acknowledges the suffering the Hutchison family has endured. Our prayers for their healing continue," the statement said. The diocese must decide whether to appeal within 30 days, the statement said.

Serbin doubts another diocesan appeal will be successful, since the state Supreme Court has already sided with Hutchison twice.

"The Supreme Court got it right, and it took three times for the Superior Court to review the evidence and agree," Serbin said.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.