A Legal Pioneer for Clergy Sex Abuse Survivors for Over 30 years

In 1987, Richard  M. Serbin became one of the first attorneys in the U.S. to file a lawsuit against the Catholic Church, a bishop and a priest for sexual abuse of a minor. He would go on to represent hundreds of similar survivors, becoming a key national figure in winning compensation for child abuse survivors and exposing the Catholic Church’s systematic cover-up of crimes against children.

To date, Serbin has represented hundreds of men and women who were sexually assaulted as children by priests, teachers, and church employees.[1] He is the only attorney to date to win a jury verdict in Pennsylvania against a diocese, bishop, and child predator.[2] After the resurgence of abuse allegations and evidence of the church’s concealment of these crimes, Serbin joined the national law firm of Janet, Janet & Suggs as head of the firm’s Sexual Abuse Division.

 

The firm’s founding principal, Howard Janet, is  nationally known for representing abuse survivors, including “Victim #6,” who was sexually abused as a child by former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. He also spearheaded a settlement for thousands of women and girls abused by Johns Hopkins Hospital obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Nikita Levy.[3]

The Child Abuse Case That Changed Everything

 

Long before thousands of survivors began coming forward with their stories of childhood sexual abuse at the hand of clergy members, Serbin was approached with a case that would change the course of his career. More than 30 years ago he was contacted by the mother of Michael Hutchison, a troubled and intellectually challenged 19-year-old in prison for robbery and prostitution. 

 

The young man disclosed detailed accounts of repeated abuse by Father Francis Luddy of the Pennsylvania diocese of Altoona-Johnstown beginning when he was only 11 years old. Serbin believed Hutchison aand he knew he had to do everything in his power to find justice against his abuser and those within the church who allowed the abuse to occur. He filed a lawsuit against Luddy, the bishop, and the diocese, to seek justice for the abuse Hutchison endured and the lasting impact it has had on his life.

The trial began in January of 1994, and resulted in a verdict in favor of Michael. The jury's verdict included both compensatory and punitive (punishment) damages. After multiple appeals to the Pennsylvania Superior and Supreme Courts, the jury's verdict in favor of Hutchinson for recovery of over $2.9 million was upheld.[4] While this verdict could not take away the abuse he suffered as a child, it did help Hutchison find closure after decades of pain and injustice.

 

Fifteen years after Richard filed the Hutchison v Luddy lawsuit, the Boston Globe published results of an investigation that led to criminal prosecution of five Roman Catholic priests for child molestation and thrust the issue of widespread abuse and cover-ups by Church officials into the national spotlight.[5]

 

Serbin Uncovers Church Secret Documents

 

While investigating Hutchison’s case, Serbin made a shocking finding: Roman canon law required bishops to keep files detailing complaints of sexual misconduct by priests in what are called "secret archives.” These archives were accessible only to the bishop. Through the discovery process Serbin requested the files, which were locked in the office of the bishop. After a legal battle, he obtained a court order requiring the bishop to produce the files. These documents revealed that, while at a treatment facility that Bishop James Hogan required him to check into, Luddy had admitted to psychiatrists that he had sexually abused multiple children since his first year of ordination. The secret archive records also revealed complaints against numerous other priests within the diocese and the protection and transfer of these child predators by church officials. These records confirmed that the bishop had been untruthful in his sworn deposition testimony.

 

Serbin’s discovery of the existence of these secret Church archives has been pivotal to identifying and prosecuting pedophile priests. By late 2018, attorneys general in at least 17 states had launched their own investigations into sexual abuse within the Catholic Church and the protection given to child predators. The Pennsylvania attorney general's office utilized surprise search warrant raids to secure these secret archive documents from each Pennsylvania diocese.[6] [7]

 

Challenging Statutes of Limitations for Survivors

 

Serbin often speaks out about the need for states to change laws to give survivors of sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits. Pennsylvania law currently gives child sex abuse survivors until age 30 to file a lawsuit against their abuser and those that enable and protect child predators. Based on his experience, Serbin says abuse survivors "often need decades to come to terms with what happened to them and muster the courage to talk about it.”[8]

 

The Pennsylvania grand jury agrees. Its 887-page 2018 report on Catholic clergy sex abuse included a recommendation that now-adult survivors of priest child sexual abuse be given a retroactive two-year “window of opportunity” to sue their abusers in civil court regardless of statutes of limitations. It also recommended that the criminal statute of limitations for sexually abusing children be eliminated.[9]

 

The Hutchison v. Luddy trial laid the groundwork for the grand jury's findings. Serbin testified before the grand jury and provided the attorney general's office with information identifying 109 child predators.

 

Legal Approach Includes a Sympathetic Ear

 

For Serbin, representing abuse survivors has become a calling. He says the clients he deals with often come with severe emotional problems; many are addicted to drugs or alcohol, some have attempted suicide, while others have reported suicide ideation. All have suffered lifelong difficulties from the betrayal by someone they were taught to respect and trust.[10]

 

“People contact me just to talk about what happened. Some don’t want to file a claim, they just want to talk to someone they can trust. I understand that. It’s often not about money, it’s about healing, recovery, and preventing other children from suffering the horrors of abuse. I engage in this work more as a calling than a career. I’m happy to listen for as long as they want to talk.”

 
 

Testimonials

“Over the past 50 years I have attempted to bury an unthinkable event that transformed my life.


Then I met Richard Serbin.


I knew instinctively the moment I spoke to Richard that I could share my story with him, which I had only ever shared with my husband.


Richard Serbin is a survivor’s advocate, a highly knowledgeable attorney, and, more importantly, Richard is a humanitarian. Richard is a compassionate man.


What needs to be understood is the embarrassment I had to share would cause extreme emotions on a grand scale. Yet, Richard’s demeanor and his genuine concern made sharing feel natural. Richard reminded me from our first conversation that I must remember that “THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT, BONNIE.”


With those words I knew that Richard Serbin has the experience to work with survivors. Because that one aspect of self-blame has affected all of the survivors. I needed to hear those words.”— BONNIE

“I doubt I would have had the success (and no amount of money will ever make up for what I lost) that I had without the guidance and protection of Richard Serbin. He advised me and did the “heavy lifting” regarding my case. He argued for me and sat with me during the interview that was to establish the worthiness of my compensation.
It was hard for me to deal with all the emotions that came up and I want to say that I am so glad I had Richard do the brunt of the communication and interfacing with the Diocese. I’m glad I had someone who could guide me. All I had to do was tell the truth in my testimony, written and verbal. He did the rest.


The RC Church has many, many good lawyers and lots of financial backing...I wanted someone who could “speak their language” and who would speak for me.


My case had a favorable outcome and I am very happy that I had Richard on my side to help make that happen.


The pain and anguish suffered by every victim that stays silent and by every victim that tries to speak up is without comparison. There is so much unfairness and injustice in the world for a victim/survivor. Loss in self esteem, self respect, courage, life goals, wages, relationships, mental health. There is so much hurt involved at so many levels that it is still – even after 25 years of recovery – overwhelming at times.”— MARK

“I came in contact with Mr. Serbin this past year. As a victim of child sexual abuse, I was looking for closure. Mr. Serbin was highly recommended. I am a suspicious, highly anxious and at times difficult person to work with as a result of my PTSD from the abuse. I never thought I would find somebody I could work with or understand the importance of my case. Before contacting Mr. Serbin, I “checked him out” and was not only impressed with his credentials, but more importantly to me, his humanity. From my research he really seemed to care about his clients.


I found Mr. Serbin to be very professional, intelligent, patient, kind, and supportive. He was more than understanding of my situation and understood the emotions and devastation I felt at times. He was always honest with me, explained everything in detail and told me to call or email at any time and he would soon get back to me, and he did. He gave me hope for closure when I had none in the past.


Mr. Serbin prepared me and calmed my fears when it came time to speak of my trauma. He was prepared in every aspect of my case, able to keep my anxieties in control and everything resolved in a very good outcome. He cares about his clients, does a tremendous amount of research to reach a beneficial solution and is always very gracious. Mr. Serbin cares about his clients and wants them to have justice through the legal system and have the perpetrator pay if at all possible.


I would recommend Mr. Serbin to anyone who wants a lawyer who will work with them not just because of a settlement, but because he understands and wants justice. He and his assistant Maryanne, who has been with him for many years, are a wonderful team. They both are the best at their job, caring, available, and get results. I am very thankful and will always appreciate the work and help they gave me.”— JO-ANN

“I would like to thank you and your firm for providing exceptional and informative services to me during the past year pertaining to my claim of abuse by a priest who has not faced repercussions for his immoral acts.
 

One of the key factors in choosing you specifically was your many years of experience helping victims abused by “trusted” priests through the lengthy court processes, while being compassionate and positive. You provided truth that the law was not on the side of the victims, but gave hope that the laws on limitations could and should be changed. You have tirelessly advocated for these changes and continue to give hope. You have gone out of your way to help me and others and I feel you have given all of us a strong voice against these priests and the Catholic Church. I feel you are truly on the side of the victims by your honesty and determination.
Again, thank you for helping me through this ordeal and keeping me informed on what has been happening with the laws and processes for the abused.”
— VINCENT

Early Career

 

Serbin is a 1970 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and 1974 graduate of Duquesne University School of Law. Prior to undertaking the representation of child sexual abuse survivors, he had a successful civil trial practice representing injured people.

 

 

Publications

 

Serbin is the author of an American Association for Justice article, When Clergy Fail Their Flocks,[11] concerning the intricacies and obstacles plaintiff lawyers face to ensure that those who have been harmed by clergy abuse are fully compensated under the law. 

 

His most recent publication was an Op-Editorial in the Pittsburgh Post, “Church Payoff Plans Don’t Pass the Smell Test,” about Catholic Church “compensation programs” that dangle dollars before survivor in exchange for pledges never to go to court, and ensure the full truth is never revealed.

 

 

Recent and Current Cases

 

Survivors of sexual abuse are increasingly turning to Richard and JJS for help. The firm currently is representing clients in the following cases:

  • Both men and women survivors of clergy, church, teacher and employee abuse in multiple states.

  • Students at the University of Southern California who were molested, illicitly photographed, and sexually harassed by USC obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall. In May 2018, JJ&S filed the first class action lawsuit in a California state court on behalf of these students.

 

Howard Janet, founding principal at JJS, won a $190 million settlement for some 8,000 women against Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital in a case strongly resembling the one at USC. The Hopkins lawsuit, settled in 2014, also “centered on allegations of grossly improper pelvic exams that involved improper probing, at times without gloves, sexually charged remarks and illicit photographing of genitalia.”[12]

 

“It appears that Dr. Tyndall, like Dr. Levy at Hopkins, violated the sacred trust between physicians and patients, specifically the trust between male OBGYNs and patients, in a methodical and disturbing fashion by preying on young, unsuspecting women,” said Janet.[13]

In the landmark 2019 ruling, Rice v. Diocese of Altoona, Richard M. Serbin helped set the important precedent allowing survivors of childhood abuse to seek justice even after the statute of limitations has expired. The suit does not target the crime of abuse but, rather, relies on conspiracy, fraud, and constructive fraud on the part of the diocese and church leaders. The case has allowed over two hundred survivors of child sexual abuse to file lawsuits, in an effort to expose the complicity of church officials in protecting known child abusers and in seeking justice. [14]

 
 
 
 
 
SOURCES

  1. The Crusader Who Exposed Pennsylvania’s Sadistic Catholic Priests,” Thedailybeast.com, August 8, 2018

  2. Janet, Jenner & Suggs adds Preeminent Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Attorney Richard M. Serbin to Its Sexual Abuse Division,” Globe Newswire, September 26, 2018

  3. Judge Approves $190 Settlement in Dr. Nikita Levy Case,” Baltimore Sun, September 19,2014

  4. Church Pay-Off Plans Do Not Pass the Smell Test,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 21, 2018

  5. Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” Boston Globe, January 6, 2002

  6. Wave of State Attorneys General Take on Catholic Church Sex Abuse,” Axios, October 27, 2018

  7. Investigators Raid Offices of President of U.S. Catholic Bishops,” New York Times, November 28, 2018

  8. After Decades of Fighting Against Church Abuse Cover-Up, Attorney Sees Progress,” Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat, September 15, 2018

  9. 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury Report I Interim – Redacted, JJSJustice.com

  10. The Crusader Who Exposed Pennsylvania’s Sadistic Catholic Priests

  11. When clergy fail their flocks: cases of child sexual abuse by clergy are in the headlines as victims come forward seeking justice. Attorneys can help remedy this ultimate betrayal of trust.” American Association for Justice Trial Magazine, 2002

  12. "Johns Hopkins to pay $190 million to settle suits over pelvic exam photos," Modern Healthcare, July 21, 2014

  13. First California State Class Action Lawsuits Filed Against University of Southern California For Failing To Protect Students From Sexual Abuse By USC Gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall,” Globe Newswire, May 25, 2018

  14. "Childhood Sex Abuse Survivor Sues Harrisburg Diocese and Bishops for Concealing Knowledge of Pedophile Priests”, JJS Justice, July 2019

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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