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How an Altoona lawyer took on the Catholic church over clergy sex abuse

Deb Erdley
| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, 1:33 a.m.
Richard Serbin
Submitted
Richard Serbin

Mary Hutchison was desperate.

It was 1987 when the devout Catholic mother of three knocked on the door of Richard Serbin’s Altoona law office.

Hutchison had learned her troubled son Michael, then 19 and locked in a forensic psychiatric ward, had been raped repeatedly over seven of his then 19 years of life. The perpetrator: Father Francis Luddy, their beloved parish priest at St. Therese’s Catholic Church. The priest abused him between the time he was 11 and 17.

Two years later, he had become a male prostitute and petty criminal. He suffered addiction. He attempted suicide.

The desperate mother’s pleas for the church to help her son slammed headlong into a brick wall.

Serbin was Hutchison’s last hope. Michael was fast approaching his 20th birthday, and the statute of limitations for civil cases was about to expire.

A Pittsburgh native, Serbin, who is Jewish, was the only personal injury lawyer in town who might take such a case, Hutchison was told. He agreed to interview Michael.

That interview launched a 20-year legal battle that pierced a veil of secrecy that protected predator priests for decades. It set down a trail of bread crumbs that eventually led to a statewide grand jury investigation and damning report. The odyssey took 30 years.

Details of that first meeting have not been dimmed by the decades that have passed.

“I can vividly remember meeting Michael,” Serbin said. “He was small, very thin and he was hyper. I can remember sitting at this big empty table with him. He wanted the change that his mother knew to bring. He went to the vending machines and got all these candy bars. Then he sat down. I looked in his eyes, and he started to tell me what had happened to him.”

Michael’s tale was stunning.

But Serbin believed him.

“I didn’t feel Michael was capable of lying. He didn’t have it in his make up or intellectually to lie to me,” Serbin said.

“Richard took the case and for 20 years he was there for us. He became a confidant for all of us,” Mary Hutchison said.

Long battle starts

Serbin quickly filed a petition in court. Church lawyers fired back with motions to dismiss and seal the complaint.

For the next 6½ years, Serbin worked quietly. He answered motion after motion, petition after petition and studied the Catholic church.

“Why would a child allow themselves to be molested? I had to find the answer,” Serbin said.

“My secretary of 40 years is Catholic. She went to Catholic school, sent her children to Catholic school. My paralegal was Catholic and sent her children to Catholic school. They educated me about the trust they put in their priest. The priest was someone who was the closest thing to God that you could know. That’s why when the priest said. ‘It’s all right,’ they would keep quiet,” Serbin said.

Mary Ann Ruscio, Serbin’s longtime secretary, said the church was part of the fabric of the highly Catholic town in the mountains of southern Pennsylvania.

“I went to Catholic school in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was hard for those outside to understand, but the culture was such that you’d never say no to a priest or a nun,” Ruscio said. “That just wasn’t done. If you got in trouble at school, you’d be in trouble when you got home. If you said something against a priest there was no chance, the chance of a snowball in hell, that you’d be believed.”

But Serbin believed Michael. He continued to answer the endless petitions and motions church lawyers filed, fighting to get the troubled young man his day in court.

“I think it was part of their strategy to wear me down. They knew I was just part of a small practice,” Serbin said.

The pretrial wrangling had gone largely unnoticed because a judge agreed to keep the case secret at the church’s request. All motions were filed under seal.

But in January 1994, Michael’s case headed to trial. The judge lifted the gags.

As news of the case against the church became public, emotions ran hot. Serbin fielded death threats and hang-up calls. Ruscio remembers opening letter after letter of hate mail sent to the law office.

“I’ve never owned a gun,” Serbin said. “But there was a point when I went to bed with a hammer.”

The jury trial dragged on for 11 weeks.

Serbin’s years of diligence paid off. While studying canon law, he discovered a reference to secret archives bishops were required to keep detailing complaints against priests. Documents in the archives revealed Luddy was a serial pedophile and, most stunning, that the church was aware of accusations against him going back for years.

The significance of that discovery would become evident 24 years later when a statewide grand jury investigating clergy sexual abuse unearthed a letter, dated Jan. 31, 1994, that then-Bishop Joseph V. Adamec wrote to fellow Pennsylvania bishops. Adamec warned that a court had forced him to provide Serbin with access to the diocese’s secret archives.

Adamec ended his missive by asking his fellow bishops to pray that the diocese might prevail against “this effort to discredit the church.”

‘Through hell’

Tom Doyle, a former Catholic priest who trained in canon law, was a witness at the lengthy trial.

Doyle, who had testified repeatedly in such proceedings over the years, said the Luddy trial created a public awareness that something terribly wrong was being hidden by the Catholic church.

“I thought all along that Richard Serbin did a magnificent job with that case,” Doyle said. “He kept it going when the church tried everything to block it. That in and of itself was a clear-cut indicator of the hypocrisy of the Catholic bishops. They put that family through hell.”

Before it was over, Mary Hutchison learned that the priest who had been a godfather to her three sons admitted to a longtime affair with Michael’s older brother, begun when he was an altar boy. In another devastating blow, she found out that the priest also had abused her younger son.

Luddy insisted at trial, however, that he did not abuse Michael. Church lawyers relentlessly cross-examined the frail young man.

Serbin still recalls a pivotal moment when a lawyer for the Altoona-Johnstown diocese looked Michael in the eye and accused him of being interested only in extorting money from the church.

“He told the jury he didn’t want any money,” Serbin said. “He said he just wanted to be believed.”

The jury did just that. In 1994, it returned a verdict awarding him $1.5 million.

“After the trial was over, Michael said, ‘Mom, it doesn’t matter what happens now. If it saves one child, it was worth it,’” Mary Hutchison said.

Over the next 14 years, the church fought the verdict and Serbin defended it. The church finally dropped its appeals in 2008 and paid an additional $579,000 in accrued interest that the courts tacked onto the award.

Along the way, Serbin became a magnet for abuse survivors, filing suits for 300 men and women, most of which were thrown out of court because the victims failed to seek legal recourse within what was then a narrow statute of limitations.

Even so, Doyle said Serbin’s long battle for Hutchison “opened the door.”

“It enabled a lot of other attorneys to move forward and go into that area,” Doyle said.

Continuing the fight

When the state Attorney General’s Office finally began investigating allegations of widespread abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, Serbin turned over a list of 109 predator priests identified by his clients.

Investigators declined to discuss the list, but Serbin said many of those names appeared in the scathing grand jury report released in August. The nearly 900-page tome detailed sexual abuse 301 “predator priests” unleashed on more than 1,000 children across Pennsylvania and seven decades of inadequate action or outright cover-ups by the church.

“I know because much of it is verbatim from my files,” Serbin said.

Michael Hutchison died of a drug overdose on Apr. 4, 2012, unaware of the legal tsunami borne of his long battle.

Serbin continues to specialize in clergy abuse cases from his small office in Altoona. He was preparing to retire when the grand jury report surfaced. Suddenly, former clients called, asking if he would review their claims in light of the new findings.

Instead of retiring, the small town lawyer joined Janet, Janet & Suggs — a national law firm with headquarters in Baltimore.

Serbin is skeptical of the Catholic church’s recent apologies as well as its offer to compensate victims willing to forego future legal challenges. He hopes Pennsylvania lawmakers will change the statute of limitations to give older abuse survivors the choice of seeking their day in court.

“If the pressure wasn’t put on the church in the first place, there would be no compensation funds,” Serbin said. “I’ve been representing these folks for 30 years. Where have they (Catholic church leaders) been all this time?”

Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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