Court Puts Diocese Back into Molestation Case

By Tom Gibb
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
November 25, 1999

He says he was molested into emotional ruin by the Altoona parish priest who befriended him two decades ago. His mother says the past 13 years have been a wrenching eternity of legal battles to win a payback from the priest and his superiors.

Last night, though, she was happy. The fight will go on.

In a decision filed yesterday, the state Supreme Court called the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese "negligent ... reckless and abhorrent" for failing to restrain the priest, an admitted pedophile accused of a 17-year string of child molestations. With that, the court reopened the chance that more than $ 2 million will be paid to the only plaintiff to take the priest to court.

In September 1996, state Superior Court gutted a Blair County Common Pleas Court jury decision that the Rev. Francis Luddy, Luddy's former parish and the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese pay the plaintiff $ 1.6 million.

While the jurors said Luddy, the diocese and his former parish were all responsible, Superior Court decided that the diocese and the parish were not.

In yesterday's decision, the Supreme Court exempted only the parish from punishment, deciding 5-1 that both Luddy and the diocese could still be held liable.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to Superior Court for reconsideration.

Bringing the diocese back into the case is critical to the plaintiff, because only the diocese and its insurers have the money to pay a hefty penalty - which, with interest, had grown to $ 2.3 million in 1996, the last time an accounting was made.

"I'm delighted," said Richard Serbin, an Altoona attorney who battled with the diocese for seven years just to bring the case to trial. "Before, the verdict was gone. Now, that's not the case."

Louis Long, an attorney with Meyer, Darragh, Buckler, Bebenek & Eck, the Pittsburgh firm representing the diocese, declined yesterday to comment on specifics of the opinion. "We're disappointed in the outcome," he said.

There is no timetable for Superior Court to rehear the case. And a decision there could well be appealed back to the Supreme Court.

"It seems this case will never leave our lives," the plaintiff's mother said last night.

The plaintiff in the Luddy case - now 31, under outpatient psychiatric care and living with his parents in Akron, Ohio - testified at the Blair County civil trial in 1994 that Luddy began having sex with him 23 years ago, when he was an altar boy at St. Therese and Luddy's godson.

For six years, the molestation continued, the plaintiff said.

The Post-Gazette does not identify victims or accusers in sexual abuse cases.

Luddy - relieved of his duties and sent to a church-sponsored rehabilitation center for sex offenders in New Mexico - confessed to jurors that he molested the plaintiff's older brother repeatedly. But he denied sexual contact with the plaintiff, telling the court he thought the boy "wasn't attractive."

In court, Serbin portrayed Luddy as a barely satiable pedophile who was allowed free contact with children by superiors who refused to rein him in or send him for treatment.

In the end, though, the statute of limitations left the case hinging on only the last two times the plaintiff said he was molested. His family had moved to Akron, Ohio, and he ran away from home to talk to Luddy about problems he was having.

Prior to that meeting, "[The youth] told Father Luddy on the phone, ' I don't want to have sex. Promise me, no sex,' " Serbin has said.

Even so, Luddy met him at an Altoona motel and molested him, Serbin said.

In its 1996 decision, the Superior Court reasoned that only Luddy, not the diocese or St. Therese, was responsible because the molestation occurred away from church property. That gutted the award because Luddy was bankrupt.

Yesterday's majority opinion, authored by Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, found that St. Therese's was not responsible because Luddy was no longer assigned to that parish at the time the most recent molestations occurred. But it said that diocese officials, including then-Bishop James Hogan, knew Luddy was a pedophile and were obligated to keep him away from children.

"Instead ... they concealed and ignored it ... they allowed him to go on molesting children with impunity," Newman wrote. "Their inaction in the face of such a menace is not only negligent, it is reckless and abhorrent."

The question came down to: Was Luddy acting as a parish's priest or a private individual when he molested the plaintiff?

The Supreme Court decided the diocese indeed could be held responsible because a jury reasonably could have concluded that the plaintiff summoned Luddy to the motel room solely because Luddy had been his parish priest.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Ronald Castille wrote that the plaintiff never testified that he summoned Luddy because Luddy was a priest - and didn't even know for sure when he ran away to Altoona from Akron that Luddy was still in the priesthood.

Instead, the plaintiff was hunting a friend, someone to talk to, someone who might ease his depression and give him some money, Castille wrote.


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