Long before the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached a more than $600 million settlement with victims of child sexual abuse, before a “Spotlight” was shined on the Archdiocese of Boston, before every bishop in Chile offered to resign in the aftermath of a 2,300-page report detailing misconduct by clergy in that nation, before Australia released the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Blair County attorney Richard Serbin was one of the few individuals in the United States drawing attention to predator priests.
He was threatened and vilified at the time.
But, when the Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General issued a grand jury report in 2016 exposing how the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona–Johnstown protected abusers and another this year that provided information about similar actions committed in six other dioceses, Serbin, who has represented hundreds of victims, was ultimately vindicated.
“I always knew I was doing the right thing, and it’s gratifying that the information of what took place is now being made available to the public,” Serbin said. “It’s about the children.
“There was nothing about what happened within the church that you could look at and say, ‘Well, I understand.’ It’s beyond one’s imagination that purported leaders representing the highest of morals would be a part of a cover-up of the most heinous and vile crimes against children.”
Serbin played a key role in the investigations, providing information about dozens of predator priests.
In 1987, Serbin, a civil attorney, met Michael Hutchinson, a troubled 19-year-old in a mental institute for criminals.
He eventually learned Hutchinson and an older brother, Mark Hutchinson, had been sexually abused by the Rev. Francis Luddy, who served at St. Therese of the Child Jesus in Altoona.
Luddy, godfather to both brothers, abused Mark in the church rectory and other locations, including on trips to Europe.
Survivors of clergy child sexual abuse and their supporters will gather at the Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown on Monday to share their stories and call for what organizers of the town hall are calling a “Window to Justice.”
“He would sleep in the same room with Mark,” Serbin said.
“And other people from the church would go on these trips. They were aware of that. And Mark was older than Michael, so he molested Mark first, and then went to Michael, and later – as it turned out – went to (another brother) Samuel.”
Serbin took the case to trial, beginning a two-decade process during which the diocese spent $2 million to defend itself and Luddy, who admitted to abusing Mark and had been sent to the Servants of the Paraclete in New Mexico for treatment. But, three decades ago, an attorney who brought forth such a case was often perceived as trying to damage the church’s reputation with lies.
“I was attacked publicly, as was my client,” Serbin said.
A Blair County jury, though, awarded $1 million in punitive damages assessed to the diocese, $50,000 to Luddy, $500,000 for future psychiatric and/or medical expenses, $10,000 for pain and suffering and $9,000 for loss of enjoyment of life, according to information provided by Serbin’s office.
“The jury got it right,” Serbin said. “Luddy was a sick, vile man. But, as far as I’m concerned, the leaders in the church, including the bishops that protected him, defended him, supported him, their actions are far more disgusting and disturbing than the child predator himself.”
The legal proceedings in the Luddy case – with appeals – did not conclude until 2008.
Serbin’s office provided additional information about payments in an email, stating: “Thereafter, along with payment of the compensatory damage verdict, interest was paid in the amount of $634,153.42. The punitive damage claim was paid in two parts, the award of $1,000,000.00 plus interest in the amount of $202,191.77. Subsequently additional interest was paid on the punitive damage claim in the amount of $579,435.11.”
“After 20 years of battle, I got every penny, plus over $500,000 worth of interest,” Serbin said.
“Those legal battles helped me gain the reputation – I think – as a fighter for the sexually abused victim, someone who is not afraid of the power of the church and with a willingness to do whatever it took.”
He added: “I became known in the legal community because precedent was being set by higher court rulings in Pennsylvania.”
For years, the church’s policy was to “settle these cases, require a confidentiality agreement, and thereby keep the priests in the ministry and avoid any publicity that would tarnish the reputation of the church,” in Serbin’s opinion.
“As to the child, well, to be candid, in the thousands of records I’ve reviewed from secret archive files, they never cared about the child,” Serbin said. “There was a total absence of concern for the well being of these innocent children.”
In the Luddy case, Serbin “objected strenuously to the sealing of records. Why? Well, I wanted the public to know what was going on, and I felt other victims of clergy abuse would come forward to support the fact that Luddy had molested them, which he admitted at trial he did.”
The 2016 grand jury report into the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese ultimately revealed Luddy “molested, groped, masturbated, sodomized and performed oral sex on at least 10 children between the ages of 10 and 17” from 1969 until 1984. The grand jury concluded “church leadership chose to wrap themselves in lawyers and litigation rather than hold Francis Luddy accountable.”
“Perhaps no single priest is a better representation of the misguided direction of church leadership than the mishandling of the Father Francis Luddy matter,” according to the document.
Later, the 2018 report into six dioceses in the commonwealth included a letter then-Altoona Johnstown Bishop Joseph Adamec sent to the state’s other bishops during the Luddy legal process. It, in part, read: “It would appear to me, given the facts of this case and the procedures allowed the attorney for the plaintiff, that this is another effort to discredit the Church. We have been viewing our situation within the context of our faith journey and are putting forth every effort to approach the matter in a positive way.”
Serbin said the “letter really is so important.”
“Here he is, in 1994, saying to all the bishops in Pennsylvania and the Vatican’s representative, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong.’ I find that so offensive, so outrageous, so indefensible that everyone was on the same page as Adamec that they didn’t do anything wrong,” Serbin said.
Serbin has received settlements for numerous victims, including those abused by Brother Stephen Baker, a Province of the Immaculate Conception of the Third Order Regular Franciscans friar and former athletic trainer at what was previously called Bishop McCort High School, whose abuse of children eventually led to the initial Altoona-Johnstown Diocese investigation.
But Serbin estimates about 100 cases have been dismissed due to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, which requires victims to file civil claims before they turn 30. Criminal cases can only be brought until age 50. He has also turned away more than 100 clients knowing they fell outside of the statute’s legal timeline.
Serbin said his experience shows victims are often not mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with their abuse until later in life.
A debate has been occurring for years within the state government about whether to eliminate the statute of limitations. On Monday, a group of legislators, including state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor, and abuse survivors are scheduled to discuss the issue during a town hall at Holiday Inn Johnstown-Downtown. A point of contention has been whether to include a window, possibly two years, during which victims of past abuse could retroactively take legal action against their abusers, even if the statute of limitations already expired.
“No. 1, the laws in Pennsylvania need to change, regarding the statute of limitations for both civil and criminal matters,” Serbin said. “Regarding civil claims, which is my area of expertise, I think – at the very least – they should adopt a window of opportunity for the victims of clergy child sexual abuse to bring forward claims.”