Diocese Agrees to Give up Legal Fight

By Susan Evans
The Tribune-Democrat
April 16, 2008

HOLLIDAYSBURG — The Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese called it quits Wednesday in its legal fight against the Michael Hutchison sex-abuse verdict by paying $579,435 in court-ordered accrued interest.

The payment, and the diocese's commitment not to lodge further appeals, ends a painful 20-year legal battle.

It also coincides with Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the U.S., kicked off Wednesday with his statements to traveling reporters that the sexual abuse of children has caused "great suffering."

Richard Serbin, the Altoona attorney who in 1987 filed Hutchison's suit claiming sexual abuse by then-priest Francis Luddy, said he is glad the lengthy fight is over but remains concerned about his client.

"It was 2001 before the first aspect of money was paid," Serbin said.

"By the time money was available, it may have been later than we had hoped. Michael lives in Ohio, is unemployed, and continues to get counseling and to deal with these issues.

"That's true of so many abuse victims I've represented," he said. "They have so many demons."

In a written statement released Wednesday, Bishop Joseph Adamec said he hoped that ending the 20-year case would "bring some closure to this painful matter."

Adamec said the Hutchison case was one of the first issues brought to his attention when he arrived as bishop more than 20 years ago.

"There has been much pain for the victim, his family, and our church in that time," he said.

In his lawsuit, Hutchison said the abuse began when he was about 10 or 11 years old and continued until he was 17 in the 1980s.

A Blair County jury in 1994 ordered compensatory damages of more than $500,000 and punitive damages of $1 million, agreeing that the diocese was negligent in supervising Luddy, who was later defrocked.

But for the next 14 years, the diocese lodged several appeals, paid only the compensatory damages, and withheld interest plus the punitive damages.

At one point, in 2002, records showed that the diocese had paid more to its attorneys than to the victim, with $1.35 million going in legal fees and costs to fight the Hutchison lawsuit.

Serbin said he remains concerned about the issue of sexual abuse within the Catholic church.

"Since 2002, as a result of the courage of thousands of victims, the true scope of this crisis has been made public, including the failure of bishops and church leaders to appropriately deal with errant priests," he said.

A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 4,392 priests were accused of child sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002.

Serbin lauded the diocese efforts in the past five years to protect children, but said more needs to be done.

Adamec said progress has been made since the Hutchison case, citing background checks on staff, training on the protection of young people and an independent audit each year.

National estimates are that the scandal has produced thousands of abuse victims and about 5,000 accused priests since it erupted in 2002. The scandal reportedly has cost the church more than $2 billion in settlements.

"We are deeply ashamed and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future," the pope told reporters.

He is scheduled to talk about the abuse scandal Saturday, when he celebrates Mass for American clergy at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.


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