6 News Investigates: 2004 diocese arbitration used abuse guide for victim settlements

By Kody Leibowitz
May 10, 2016

[with video]

HOLLIDAYSBURG -- The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown has paid millions of dollars in settlements in the past.

At least one of those settlements included a guide used by the diocese and attorneys to determine how to pay victims, according to an investigation by 6 News Investigates.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane released a grand jury report in March on the Diocese. It outlined shocking allegations against the diocese and its past leadership.

The pages of the grand jury report shed public light on a diocesan payment chart. The March report calls it a "pay out scale" used for "the purchase of silence". Four levels are transcribed in an escalating degree of sexual abuse-to-payment range. Compensation to victims ranged from $10,000 to $175,000.

"Why would you trust the [Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown]?" questioned George Foster, a layperson recognized by Kane during the investigation of the diocese.

But this scale has been known for years behind closed doors.

After the grand jury report acknowledged a payout chart, 6 News Investigates wanted to learn more about it, when it was used and why it was used by leaders. Our investigation led us to digging up a decades old settlement, which was widely reported in the mid 2000s. The settlement happened in 2004, involving 21 victims alleging child sexual abuse against 11 priests and one school teacher at the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. Richard Serbin represented the 21 victims in this case.

The outcome was a $3.71 million award divvied up by an arbitrator. Attached to the settlement and arbitration agreement was a guide very similar to the one described in the Grand Jury report.

6 News Investigates: Was that ever brought to your attention of the system that was devised at the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown?
Serbin: Yes, I was aware of it.

Serbin is an Altoona-based defense attorney who has represented more than 70 victims of child sexual abuse by priests or laypersons of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. He settled 21 cases against the diocese in May 2004. Then-retired Allegheny County Judge David Murphy sat in as a neutral arbitrator.

The victims settled on a lump-sum of $3.5 million, according to Serbin, and each person received an additional $10,000 for psychological treatment and/or counseling. During the talks, Serbin said the diocese requested a payment scale for the settlements.

"It was an agreed upon formula," said Serbin. "We had claims that there was fondling over clothing to the most heinous types of acts, such as children being sodomized."

Serbin said the diocese originally tried to use the scale seen in the grand jury report.

Ultimately, another guide was used.

The guide lays out damage valuations to determine settlements for each of the 21 victims. Just like the chart in the grand jury report, there are four payment levels in the guide. The levels are the same in both: above clothing fondling, underneath clothing fondling, oral sex and sodomy. This guide lists three sub-categories that included the number of times abuse happened or other aggravating factors, like age of victim.

Where the chart already lists payments, Serbin says an arbitrator determined the awarded amount of money for the victims. Victims were awarded between $50,000 to $400,000, according to the agreement paperwork.

The diocesan leader at the time of the settlements, Bishop Joseph Adamec signed off on the agreements.

"This Release is not to be construed as an admission of liability upon the part of the Releasors, but rather as a good faith settlement of a disputed claim," read a portion of the settlement, signed by Adamec and Monsignor Michael Servinsky.

"The only way to get the attention of Diocese and, speaking not solely to the Diocese of Alltoona-Johnstown, but frankly to all the Diocese in Pennsylvania, is through financial payouts," said Serbin. "They understand that."

6 News Investigates made numerous requests with current diocesan leadership and Bishop Mark Bartchak for more information on this payout list and the settlements. Our requests for interviews were declined.

Tony DeGol, secretary for communications for the diocese, emailed a statement:

"The Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown continues to be the subject of an ongoing grand jury investigation, and we continue to fully cooperate with authorities. As a result, Bishop Bartchak and I cannot comment on matters relating to the investigation."

"They had the McCaa case. They had the Luddy case. They had the Serbin lawsuits. What makes people think anything has changed?" asked Foster.


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