Since 1987, a Legal Pioneer for Church Sex Abuse Victims
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 victims, 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. He is the only attorney to date to win a jury verdict in Pennsylvania against a diocese, bishop, and child predator. He recently 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 victims, 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.
First Clergy Case Drew Ire
Serbin's first clergy sexual abuse client was Michael Hutchison, a troubled and intellectually challenged 19-year-old in prison for robbery and prostitution. Contacted by the boy’s mother, Serbin said the young man’s detailed accounts of repeated abuse by Father Francis Luddy of the Pennsylvania diocese of Altoona-Johnstown beginning at age 11, convinced him the abuse was real. He filed a lawsuit against Luddy, the bishop, and the diocese, beginning a 20-year, epic legal battle with the Catholic Church that included personal attacks and death threats against him.
The 11-week 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 20-year legal battle finally ended. The Pennsylvania Appellate Courts upheld the jury's verdict in favor of Hutchinson for recovery of over $2.9 million, including interest on a $1.9 million award. 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.
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. Serbin requested the files through the discovery process 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.
Serbin’s discovery of the existence of these secret Church archives has been pivotal to identifying and prosecuting pedophile priests. By late 2018, attorney generals in at least 17 states had launched their own investigations into sex 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. 
Challenging Statutes of Limitations for Victims
Serbin often speaks out about the need for states to change laws to give victims of sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits. Pennsylvania law currently gives child sex abuse victims 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.”
The Pennsylvania grand jury agrees. Its 887-page 2018 report on Catholic clergy sex abuse included a recommendation that now-adult victims 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.
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.
Church “Quick Compensation” Offer Hides the Truth
Serbin has criticized an offer by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in January to set aside $25 million for compensating certain limited victims. Some other dioceses have also proposed compensation funds. The compensation – which is likely substantially less than what victims would recover in civil court – is only for certain victims who register before July. It excludes sexual misconduct committed by order priests such as the Jesuits and Franciscans. Compensation is conditioned upon giving up their right to sue.
Not only would this deny victims their day in court and the possibility of full compensation, it would allow the Church to keep secret the truth about what happened, including which Church officials engaged in covering up the abuse. Serbin strongly advises all victims to talk with an experienced sexual abuse attorney before signing any agreement with a diocese that releases the Church of responsibility.
While compensation funds will help many abuse survivors, Serbin believes the laws regarding the statute of limitations should be changed to afford survivors the option of either submitting a claim with the compensation fund or exercising their legal rights in civil court. Further, a change in the law would allow all survivors to file claims and overcome the limitations imposed by the Church on compensation funds.
Legal Approach Includes a Sympathetic Ear
For Serbin, representing abuse victims 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.
For that reason, part of Serbin’s approach to representation is to do a lot of listening. “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.”
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 victims, he had a successful civil trial practice representing injured people.
Serbin is the author of an American Association for Justice article, When Clergy Fail Their Flocks, 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 victims in exchange for pledges never to go to court, and ensure the full truth is never revealed.
Recent and Current Cases
Victims of sexual abuse are increasingly turning to Richard and JJ&S for help. The firm currently is representing clients in the following cases:
Both men and women victims 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.
Previously, Howard Janet 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.”
“It appears that Dr. Tyndall, like Dr. Levy at Hopkins, violated the sacred trust between physicians and patients, specifically the trust between male OB/GYNs and patients, in a methodical and disturbing fashion by preying on young, unsuspecting women,” said Janet.
In another nationally-followed case, Howard Janet represented Victim #6 against serial molester Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University. Sandusky is now serving time in prison.
“The Crusader Who Exposed Pennsylvania’s Sadistic Catholic Priests,” Thedailybeast.com, August 8, 2018
“Janet, Jenner & Suggs adds Preeminent Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Attorney Richard M. Serbin to Its Sexual Abuse Division,” Globe Newswire, September 26, 2018
“Judge Approves $190 Settlement in Dr. Nikita Levy Case,” Baltimore Sun, September 19,2014
“Church Pay-Off Plans Do Not Pass the Smell Test,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 21, 2018
“Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” Boston Globe, January 6, 2002
“Wave of State Attorneys General Take on Catholic Church Sex Abuse,” Axios, October 27, 2018
“Investigators Raid Offices of President of U.S. Catholic Bishops,” New York Times, November 28, 2018
“After Decades of Fighting Against Church Abuse Cover-Up, Attorney Sees Progress,” Johnstown, PA Tribune-Democrat, September 15, 2018
40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury Report I Interim – Redacted, JJSJustice.com
“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
"Johns Hopkins to pay $190 million to settle suits over pelvic exam photos," Modern Healthcare, July 21, 2014
“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
“Victim No. 6: Violation and Vindication,” CNN, June 28, 2012