Court Won't Hear Molestation Appeal

By Tom Gibb
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
October 4, 2001

The state Supreme Court has refused to review an award -- now grown to about $1.2 million -- for a one-time altar boy who says the priest at his Altoona parish repeatedly molested him three decades ago.

Fourteen years after it came to court, the high-profile case could be nearing an end, with the plaintiff -- 34 years old now, in an Ohio jail on a probation violation and, he says, emotionally wrecked by the molestation -- standing to collect the $1.2 million and possibly another $1 million in additional damages.

The impact of the case goes beyond the ex-altar boy and the Altoona-based Catholic diocese he did battle with -- and even beyond clergy molestation cases in general, the plaintiff's attorney said yesterday.

It affirms that a plaintiff can sue any employer if an employee gets out of line on the job and commits anything from theft to sex crimes for which the employer should have known its worker had a tendency, Altoona lawyer Richard Serbin said.

"This case is being cited in a lot of cases that have nothing to do with religion or molestation," Serbin said yesterday. "It's not just religious institutions. It's any employer."

Friday, the state Supreme Court refused to hear the diocese's appeal of the case.

Yesterday, diocese attorney Carl Eck of Pittsburgh said it hasn't been decided whether to ask the court to reconsider, a request that would have to be tendered by the end of next week.

"Their odds that the court would reconsider would have to be less than one in 10," Ron Ricci, law professor at Duquesne University, said yesterday.

The Altoona case brought the plaintiff -- the priest's godson, a former Altoona resident who moved with his parents in Akron, Ohio -- up against the Rev. Francis Luddy and the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese.

The Post-Gazette does not identify victims of possible sexual abuse.

According to his complaint, he was molested repeatedly by Luddy. But by the time the case was filed, only two episodes -- encounters in 1983 and 1984 at an Altoona motel -- were still viable under the statute of limitations.

In 1994, the case went to a Blair County Common Pleas jury, where Luddy admitted he was a pedophile who molested young parishioners. But he denied molesting the plaintiff, portrayed by diocesan attorneys as a drug-addled liar manufacturing tales to cash in on the diocese.

Serbin, in turn, portrayed the diocese as an overseer that should have been aware that Luddy racked up stultifying episodes of molestation. But instead of curbing him, the lawyer told jurors, the diocese played an administrative shell game by moving the priest to a new parish each time his pedophilia and an accompanying drinking problem got out of control.

Jurors awarded the plaintiff $1.6 million, the bulk of it coming from the diocese. It was money that Serbin said would pay for long, intensive psychiatric treatment for the plaintiff, who has been emotionally shredded by molestation.

The plaintiff told jurors that he became a regular drug user and a male prostitute, hunting business at an Akron park, a lifestyle that landed him jail. A substance abuse-related probation violation has put him back in jail.

After the 1994 trial, Luddy, bankrupt, went back to a rehabilitation program for pedophile priests in New Mexico.

The state Superior Court later reduced the award. But $519,000 of that was reinstated, a total that rises to about $1.2 million once delay damages and interest are added in, Serbin said yesterday.

More than $1 million more hangs in the balance in an appeal Serbin has before the state Supreme Court.

The $519,000 is all compensatory damages. Serbin has asked that punitive damages, stripped from the total award, be reinstated.


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