Church Not Liable for Molestation
Pa. Superior Court Throws Out Verdict in Victim's Lawsuit

By Jon Schmitz
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
September 6, 1996

In 1994, a Blair County jury awarded nearly $ 1.6 million to an Ohio man after concluding that, as a youngster, he had been molested by a Catholic priest in Altoona.

The verdict emerged from 25 hours of emotion-churning deliberations, 11 weeks of trial and seven years of legal wrangling. The victim said he would use the money for psychiatric treatment, or, as he put it, ''to get my life together. ''

Yesterday, his lawyer had to tell him the whole thing had unraveled.

A divided state Superior Court panel overturned the verdict, ruling that the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and St. Therese Church were not liable for the conduct of the Rev. Francis Luddy.

The plaintiff had charged that Luddy, who had been assigned to St. Therese, molested him repeatedly over a six-year period beginning in 1978.

But only two incidents - both of which occurred at an Altoona motel after Luddy had been transferred to another church - fell within the statute of limitations that applied in the civil case.

In his majority opinion, Senior Judge John G. Brosky ruled that because the incidents occurred away from church premises, the diocese and parish could not be held liable.

Judge Patrick R. Tamilia did not join the opinion but concurred with the result. Judge Kate Ford Elliott dissented.

The victim's attorney, Richard Serbin, said he was shocked by the ruling and would appeal.

''My heart breaks for (him). It's hard to explain to him how the judicial system can ignore the years of sexual abuse that a jury found and, based on a technicality, throw the case out the window,'' Serbin said.

''We've been fighting this matter since 1987 and we intend to keep fighting,'' he said. ''It's the right thing to do.''

Louis C. Long, one of the diocese's attorneys, disputed Serbin's view that the verdict had been overturned on a technicality. Two important factors were that the alleged incidents were not on church property and that both occurred after the young man had fled his parents' home in Ohio and sought out Luddy.

The victim by then was ''old enough to know what was going on,'' Long said. ''This is not the classic example of a pedophile lurking for his prey.''

During the trial, the plaintiff, then 26, testified that Luddy began molesting him when he was 11 years old and serving as an altar boy at St. Therese. He said the abuse continued until 1984 and left him in emotional ruin.

Luddy denied having molested the boy, but admitted molesting five others, including the accuser's older brother.

In the lawsuit, Serbin argued that the church and diocese were at fault for failing to curb the abuse. The jury agreed, assessing compensatory and punitive damages against the diocese, St. Therese Church and Luddy. The trial judge added delay damages, bringing the total award to nearly $ 1.9 million.

Luddy was defrocked and underwent treatment in New Mexico for pedophilia. He filed for bankruptcy, shielding himself from responsibility for his share of the damages awarded in the case. His whereabouts could not be determined yesterday.

The Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, which serves about 129,000 Catholics in a 90-mile swath of west-central Pennsylvania, hailed the ruling but kept its response low key.

Bishop Joseph Adamec offered a two-paragraph written response in which he said he was ''very pleased'' and ''gratified'' with the ruling - a reaction he said came ''notwithstanding the tragic circumstances of this case.''

The response made no mention of the plaintiff, Luddy or any particulars of the case.

''We will go back to court,'' said the plaintiff's mother, who has left an office job to become her son's 24-hour-a-day overseer. ''We know we're right, and we told the truth.''

A psychologist had testified that the plaintiff's mental health care could cost more than a half-million dollars and still not clear the emotional wreckage.

''He needs quality treatment from someone who knows how to deal with sexual abuse survivors,'' the psychologist, Robert Witchel of Indiana, Pa., said yesterday.

The plaintiff was paroled in May from a prison in Lebanon, Ohio, another move in an adult life in which he has been shuttled between prisons and mental institutions, sometimes working as prostitute to feed drug addiction - and now existing as a heavily sedated 29-year-old deemed incapable of living by himself.

''He's a grown man, but taking care of him is like starting over again, more like caring for a child,'' his mother said.

For other attorneys handling similar cases, the ruling was surprising.

''It'll be noted by the legal community,'' said Stephen Rubino, a Ventor, N.J., attorney who estimates that 80 percent of his cases involve molestations by clerics. ''There might be fewer lawyers now willing to handle cases like this.''

Tom Gibb, an Altoona free-lance writer, contributed to this report.


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